Thursday, 30 June 2016

REVIEW: "We the People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers' Vision of America" by Juan Williams

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

We the People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers' Vision of America
by Juan Williams
ISBN: 978-0307952042
Copyright April 2016
Hardcover, 464 Pages

We the People is an exceptionally well-written, immensely engaging, and effortlessly understandable book filled to the brim with incredibly thought-provoking and inspiring narratives. The book is astutely and refreshingly anchored upon the notion of America's “original Founding Fathers”—“the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the fifty-five men who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787”—as a springboard for examinations of an assemblage of modern Founding Fathers—the “new founding family for today's America.”

Perspectives harbored by America's original Founding Fathers were demystified—their calls for a secular government apparently were not in consideration of the “best interests of American democracy,” but rather were “simply means of discriminating against religions that the Protestant Founders and their progeny they didn't like: namely Catholicism and Judaism.” Significantly, debates regarding the Second Amendment in the context of maintaining a “well-regulated militia,” and as the solution to concerns about “a too-powerful national army” transformed into the 21st century dialogue of the right to bear arms for self-defense or hunting.

Similarly, the author highlighted the fact that as the U.S. military shouldered the responsibility of “countering communism throughout the world,” it undoubtedly represents “a far cry from the Founding Fathers' original concept of local militias.” A further assortment of interesting details pertaining to the Founding Fathers were further explored—“most historians” argue that the Founding Fathers' beliefs were shaped by Deism; they committed to an economic policy prescribing minimal governmental role in the economy, along with “limited taxation and small protectionist policies.” And in an utterly lucid manner, the author communicated other important distinctions; “the Founding Fathers knew nothing about the Thirteenth Amendment (ending slavery), the Fourteenth Amendment (giving equal rights to all citizens, including blacks), or the Fifteenth Amendment (giving black men the right to vote).”

The book spotlights instrumental figures both renowned and less familiar to the American public. President John F. Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy, and President Ronald Reagan are amongst the famed individuals discussed. The author chronicled the inspirational stories of the Kennedys who “drastically reformed America's immigration policy,” and explored President Reagan's, along with his attorney general Ed Meese's, role in leading to the appointment of partisan justices—those “who believed in a strict reading of the Constitution as the basis for all decisions”—to the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia.

Distinctly captivating was the survey of Jesse Jackson—the “President of Black America” and successor to Martin Luther King Jr.—and the famed economist Milton Friedman. Jackson and King were credited for laying the groundwork for the “political possibility” of a black president, “a reality incomprehensible to the Founding Fathers;” Jackson did so by being a forceful crusader for “black capitalism,” for the maximization of the value of “black political power,” and by further normalizing the notion of a black running for the presidential nomination.

Friedman, on the other hand, was highlighted for his “economic counterrevolution against Keynes's theory”—he who established himself as the leading economist for “America's small-government conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans,” and known for his influential economic ideology of the free market and opposition to an activist government. On an interesting note, Friedman's small-government, free-market approach was said to parallel the thinking of Founding Father and former president Thomas Jefferson. Presumably as a bonus, the author inserted a concise list comprising 13 bulleted points pertaining to facets of the market to which Friedman expressed his opposition, of which includes the Food and Drug Administration, and the national parks.

Eleanor Roosevelt—the longest-serving First Lady in American history, “the most activist First Lady the nation had ever seen,” and the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights—Rachel Carson, the author of the 1962 book Silent Spring, and Betty Friedan, writer of The Feminine Mystique, represent the only three women spotlighted in the book. Roosevelt is revered for her proclamation of “universal rights for all people” beyond the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; Carson is acclaimed for inspiring “the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Environmental Policy Act,” and for sparking the nation's environmental discourse with her book expounding the dangers of the pesticide DDT; and Friedan, owing to the success of her book, was extolled for launching the contemporary feminist movement, and for inducing “intense discussions of gender equality” unprecedented in postwar America.

Other less known, but nonetheless comparably pivotal, figures discussed in the book include Robert Ball, a leader in the Social Security Administration under both Democratic and Republican presidents—and one whom without which “there would be no Social Security, no Medicare to provide healthcare for the elderly, no Medicaid to provide healthcare for the poor, and certainly no Affordable Care Act in the twenty-first century”—and George Meany, the head of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and a paramount figure in America's labor movement, and for setting the 21st century “middle-class employment” framework in the country.

Other similarly captivating narratives were that of General William Westmoreland, for having established “the basis for the modern American military” as he reconstructed the military to an “all-volunteer force” comprising of “professional soldiers;” Bill Bratton, who “transformed modern policing” by demonstrating the effectiveness of data-driven approach to policing, by applying the theory of “broken windows” policing, and whose crime-fighting techniques were religiously spread coast to coast; Harry Hay, the creator of the first major US gay rights group, the Mattachine Society, in 1951; and Henry Kissinger, a preeminent intellectual force in American foreign policy.

A historical gem, the book also recounts for example, the history of the National Rifle Association (NRA)—America's most powerful gun lobbying group—in its transition from an apolitical group to one spouting a “harsh, hostile political voice,” and even its role in a poignant bombing of a federal government office building housing ATF offices—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms offices—in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people. Significantly, the book also educates fellow Americans on other critical pieces of historical information, such as the “Economic Bill of Rights” called for by President Roosevelt, and the Bill of Rights for Women adopted by the National Organization for Women in 1967.

In other instances, even brief mentions of for example, the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion—a revolt “against the federal government's right to collect excise taxes on distilled liquor”—or “The Lavender Scare” expressing the combination of “homophobia and anti-communism,” ought to be appreciated for intellectually stimulating the reader and even its potentiality in encouraging one to conduct independent studies on the specific subject matter beyond the book.

The discussion of pertinent legislations represent yet another outstanding facet of the book. There were references to for example, the notorious McCarran Walter Act which granted officials the authority and “wide latitude” to deny visas to potential immigrants associated with communists in their native countries, or the Taft-Hartley Act intended to restrain the growth of unions. On a more positive note, there was the Clayton Act—the “Magna Carta” of American labor rights—which legalized strikes and boycotts, and the Norris-La Guardia Act which illegalized coercion of workers by employers “to sign contracts that banned unions from their job sites.”

The moderate sampling of illustrative legal cases was also outstanding. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case was one alluded to most frequently, and aptly each time, in the book; the landmark ruling administered in the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren. The author accentuated a paradox—Chief Justice Warren was the man who called for the internment of, and stripped the constitutional rights of, Japanese Americans after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In a further extension, the Korematsu v. U.S. case was mentioned as an exemplification of a Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Japanese American internment.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

BLOG TOUR: "The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them" by Todd G. Buchholz

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them
by Todd G. Buchholz
ISBN: 978-0062405708
Copyright June 2016
Hardcover, 384 Pages

The Price of Prosperity is a prized gem for history and politics enthusiasts. The book is densely packed with a myriad of historically-informed perspectives and content strategically positioned to elucidate fundamental political and economical themes, supplemented with modicums of psychological and philosophical pieces of information, and which concluded with an encapsulating eight-item “Patriotist Manifesto.”

Part II of the book is pointedly and considerably more engaging and fascinating than Part I. Whilst Part I dealt with the rather familiar themes of “falling birthrates,” “globalized trade,” “rising debt loads,” “eroding work ethics,” and “the challenge of patriotism in a multicultural country,” Part II comparatively treads the more unusual realm of captivating historical case studies, prominent leader biographies, and most outstanding, clearly delineated lessons gleaned from them.

It was amazing to learn about formidable leaders who faced and overcame “almost insurmountable odds in weaving together a frayed nation.” Prominent leaders examined include Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's first president, and an exceptional booster of women's rights, one who relentlessly polished the concept of Turkishness, as he vigorously fought to transform a nation of Turks who previously “had been taught to be ashamed of their very name;” Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel and an early leader of the Zionists, who admirably defied chauvinistic men, and fearlessly “barrel[led] through the gender barriers of pioneer builders and politicians;” and Don Pepe, one who took power as the leader of the “Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica,” and who was positioned in the book to address an intriguing question—the possibility for a country to “rebuild its pride, its democracy, and its economy,” in the shadow of the leader whom “once took up arms in a way that could be described as terrorism.” Comprehensively dealt with was the legendary Alexander the Great, one notably lauded for his innovative and successful battle strategies, his ingenious “balanced hellenization” scheme, and unifying practice of calling his compatriots and soldiers “Companions”—“a Homeric term” that “conferred both honor and death-defying responsibility.”

The exploration of the Meiji Revolution was superbly illuminating and interesting, bolstered by the discussions of prominent figures such as the samurai Sakamoto Ryoma, and the prolific intellectual Fukuzawa Yukichi; Ryoma was an original leader of the “expel the barbarian” movement, while the Japanese 10,000-yen note today contains an image of Yukichi. The Iwakura mission where the Japanese explored Western societies and sailed upon the SS America, was astounding, especially the way it informed subsequent reinventions of the Japanese economy and reordering of “social priorities.” It was intriguing, and somewhat hilarious to read about the Japanese “Institute for the Investigation of Barbarian Books” which was established to study “trains, trolleys, and rickshaws.”

Distinctly memorable was the way the author introduced Ataturk. The start of a paragraph went, “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born May 19 1881, in Salonica, Greece. Nearly everything about that sentence is wrong.” This reasonably successfully catches and secures the reader's attention, as Buchholz then proceeded to shed light on the statement's points of contention.

Another standout include the instance where Buchholz went about illustrating globalization and the “wonders of free trade,” by invoking the manufacturing of a pencil—a seemingly simple good often conveniently taken for granted today in developed countries—“To construct a pencil you need to be able to get to a place like Oregon and learn how to chop down a big tree. But first you would need steel for the saw. So you would need to fly to an iron mine in Brazil and strap on a miner's helmet. Then make your way to Pittsburgh to figure out how to turn iron ore into steel. Do not forget the pencil's metal tip, graphite center, and runner eraser. They require trips to Sri Lanka and Indonesia.”

The selection of historical examples within the book are excellently illustrative. As an ancient and negative example of outsourcing, Venice's impolitic decision to outsource their military, and thus their safety was said to plunge the republic into “mortal danger.” In attempts to “buy back naval loyalty” from the Ottomans which offered the Venetian navy “more gold,” hiked taxes on workers and businessmen in turn squashed the economy. Or the example of Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer-statesman, was an apt embodiment of one able to remarkably confidently “walk away from absolute power.”

Some historical examples postured to reinforce the author's predominant premiseof the “price of prosperity,” forces that undermine economically successful nationsinclude that of the fall of the Republic of Ragusa as “it was too rich to stay a free republic;” the evaporation of Sparta as it “gained wealth and lost the need and urge to procreate;” and the termination of some “fearsome” “2 million” Japanese samurai by “peace and prosperity.”

A particularly profound concept highlighted by the author was the divergence between the US Treasury and many successful corporations in terms of bond issuance; in what Buchholz attributed to “shrewd political self-interest and a bias toward the short term,” the US Treasury notably shied away from issuing 100-year bonds, opting instead for short-term funds that must be rolled over. Buchholz reinforced his point with extensive examples, specifically the “Sleeping Beauty” bonds issued by Disney, 100-year debt issued by companies like “Coca-Cola, IBM, Federal Express, and Ford,” and even by institutions of higher education such as “the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State, the University of Southern California, and Yale.”

Some matters in the book were cursorily handled, but captivating nonetheless—a point of differentiation highlighted between the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the US Declaration; the distinction between a patriot versus a patriotist, and briefly illustrated with the example of President Reagan; and a look at the antipatriotist thought, exemplified by thinkers such as Howard Zinn.

The multi-disciplinary approach adopted by the book, though not exhaustive, also deserves appreciation. In addition to naming a psychology acronym, BIRG, which describes the tendency for people to “bask in the reflected glory” of their group, the author provided a satisfactory exploration of the psychological phenomenon of the desire for superiority, by citing figures such as Sigmund Freud, a 19th century British economist and social philosopher Nassau William Senior, and the economist Robert H. Frank of Cornell. In another instance, he noted the term “segmented assimilation”—in the context of describing immigrants—as coined by Princeton sociologist Alejandro Portes.

Depending on the specific reader, he or she may or may not appreciate certain instances where the author's personal voice shines through most evidently. Buchholz himself suggested a “new and useful ratio” to interpret the sustainability of a nation, statues per young citizen; he labelled the nostalgic twinge experienced at the costs of modernization as melancholia madeleine;” he asserted that the “stuck-at-home” mentality, and as manifested by the ever increasing proportion of young adults living at home, to be “the Occupy movement we should really be worried about;” and in noting globalization as the ignition behind “forces of entropy,” rather cheekily wrote that Generation Y is turning into Generation Y bother.”

Research conducted by the author is commendable. To authenticate his claim that “countries could die,” Buchholz noted the mere 325 days the Republic of Belgium lasted in 1790, and the 211 days the Republic of Genoa made it through in 1814. The example of the instance where the American flag was banned from the campus of the University of California at Irvine, along with its purported rationale, and the discussion of the significance of volunteerism figures in Miami versus that of Las Vegas, was greatly refreshing.

Whilst the book might be a daunting read and not necessarily effortlessly understandable at times, the author's efforts at presenting the material as lucidly and as accessible as possible can be discerned. In a discussion on debt, he drew attention to a key phrase “to focus on”—“skin in the game,” to refer to “an economic actor” having “a personal stake in the outcome of an event.” In explaining the federal government's involvement in the banking loan industry, he very simply wrote, when “people act as if they have less skin in the game, trust goes down. What goes up? The appeal of get-rich-quick schemes.”

Recognizing that Part I of the book is more-or-less salvaged by the author's injection of a fresh slant through select examples and data, in addition to the five major themes being positioned as potentially able to shatter a rich nation,” it is however incontrovertible that the coverage of material at the beginning of the book appeared rather rehashed, shallow, and commonplace—without providing new insights, the author was merely restating known pieces of information such as the Keynes's “paradox of thrift” model, the phenomenon of “creative destruction” accompanied by the very typical example of Uber drivers versus city cab drivers, the brief mention of the relative aptness of the “melting pot” versus the “salad bowl” metaphor to describe the cosmopolitan society, and even dedicating a disproportionate amount of words explaining the commonly accepted knowledge that “people lose cognitive abilities when they retire early.” As for the simple explanation of “leverage” and “extrapolation,” the reader would likely appreciate the insertion of less known perspectives or additional relevant information, that could potentially set the author apart from the marketplace.

It was also somewhat a letdown to begin reading chapter 1 of the book just to encounter the issue of falling birthrates being dealt in its all-too-common configurations. There were great arguments pertaining to rising prosperity bringing about falling birthrates, and the ordering of the material was very apparently structured to form a basis for later arguments. The book however could leave a better first impression if it settled for a more impactful, exciting, and memorable start, or a more concise rendition of the crux of the issue, as opposed to plunging substantially and immediately into descriptions of highly familiar trends such as the prioritization of male over female babies, the widely known correlation of “more education” with “fewer children,” and the typical argument of children, in past eras, being comparatively seen as indispensable working, economic assets.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins Publishers for this review.