Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Copyright June 2016
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 premise—of the “price of prosperity,” forces that undermine economically successful nations—include 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.