Offit provides an excellent line-by-line takedown of the anti-vaccine movement's talking points, but his social analysis and suggestions for forward m...moreOffit provides an excellent line-by-line takedown of the anti-vaccine movement's talking points, but his social analysis and suggestions for forward movement both come up lacking.(less)
Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer, but ultimately this is a story of two dangerously under-prepared amateurs that were lucky to not get themselves...moreBill Bryson is an entertaining writer, but ultimately this is a story of two dangerously under-prepared amateurs that were lucky to not get themselves or anyone else killed on the Appalachian Trail.(less)
In the midst of a political environment prominently lacking in imagination, it is refreshing to read a book in which an author sets about developing u...moreIn the midst of a political environment prominently lacking in imagination, it is refreshing to read a book in which an author sets about developing unconventional yet practical ideas around the unstable distribution of economic power in America. Despite it's provocative title, America Beyond Capitalism is a rather conservative book that looks at how we might build a future in which the privileges of productive asset ownership are enjoyed by a larger segment of the population.
Rather than set forth and defend a rigid ideology, Gar Alperovitz instead describes various political and economic strategies that have been quietly developed in response to the needs of specific communities in America and then speaks to what larger lessons can be learned from these small-scale experiments. It’s not a book to indoctrinate, but rather a book to spark imagination around intransigent problems of the American economy.
One such problem that has gotten much recent press is that of economic inequality, specifically in the context of democratic rule. Concentrated economic power, like concentrated political power, has a destabilizing effect on democratic rule. Through campaign donations, lobbying, and the formation of political action committees, the wealthy have powerful influence on the American political process.
Beyond political influence, when the wealthiest 10% of the American population owns 81.2% of all stocks and mutual fund shares, 93.3% of all business equity, and 98.5% of financial securities, the other 90% of the population finds themselves with only marginal economic influence .
In the past, the general public has attempted to act collectively through government representatives to moderate this trend towards extreme concentration of economic power. However, antitrust regulation, progressive taxation, and other such approaches have largely failed to broaden the distribution of economic power.
In this light, rather than look to federal approaches to economic power imbalance, Alperovitz instead looks to local and community-based approaches. He covers many ideas in the book, but I’ll just focus on one – worker-owned firms – in this review.
Worker-owned firms are an important development for the American economy because they address a key problem of the economic balance which is that the shareholders of and stakeholders in American companies are often two different populations with competing interests.
To take the example of a manufacturing facility, shareholders would be those who have invested capital in the facility and now hold shareholder’s equity. Stakeholders, on the other hand, are a broader group of those who have a stake in the facility’s operations including not only the shareholders, but also employees who are dependent on the facility for wages, community members who must bear the burden of pollution produced by the facility, and consumers who are reliant on a safe product being produced.
For shareholders, profit-seeking is the supreme motive. After all, they want to maximize their return on investment. The broad pressure toward profit-maximization that shareholders exert on management often leads to cost-externalization through unsafe working conditions, pollution, and outsourcing to the extent that regulations allow.
The stakeholders who bear these externalized costs on the other hand have an interest in pushing back against such behavior. However, this returns us to our earlier statistic, that the wealthiest 10% own 93.3% of all business equity. Thus community members, employees, and other stakeholders rarely have the economic power with which to directly resist cost externalization.
Instead they must resort to indirect methods such as appeals to customers through public protest or petitioning the government for increased regulation in order to be protected. If stakeholders are in a foreign country, such as the laborers that produce electronics for Apple and Microsoft, often more dramatic measures such as the threat of mass suicide are necessary .
For a worker-owned firm, on the other hand, the stakeholders and shareholders are drawn from overlapping populations. In such a firm, profit-seeking must be balanced with the need for a safe workplace, healthy environment, and continued employment. Return on investment is important – the firm must at least break even to continue operations – but the pressure to externalize costs is tempered by the fact that the same population that bears these externalized costs are making these decision.
You might expect that with such constraints, worker-owned firms would be less efficient, but analysis of firms with Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs are a type of worker-ownership) found an average productivity increase of 4.4% following adoption of worker-ownership. This is while workers received compensation levels 8% greater than comparable public companies .
This is not to say that a mass migration to worker-ownership would immediately and completely fix all that ails the American workforce. However, practical wisdom that can be implemented on the small scale and built from the ground up is invaluable. In a time when both Democrats’ and Republicans’ only answer to the recession is shameless pandering to corporate interests, it’s refreshing to read a book that at least tries to have practical imagination around economic issues.
Of course there are plenty of Alperovitz’s ideas that I disagreed with (hence the three star review), but like I said America Beyond Capitalism is a book about ideas, not ideology. If reading this book gets people thinking with greater creativity about how we might have a robust economy and a broader distribution of economic power in this country, then it’s done its job.
Kurt Vonnegut has always had a dark way of being charming, but in this book he goes so far as to straddle the line between humorous pessimism and sad...moreKurt Vonnegut has always had a dark way of being charming, but in this book he goes so far as to straddle the line between humorous pessimism and sad despondency. Certainly it's not the work to remember him by.(less)
What does a nation established in Christ’s principles look like?
Does it wage war? Does it maintain a standing army? Does it manufacture nuclear weapons?...moreWhat does a nation established in Christ’s principles look like?
Does it wage war? Does it maintain a standing army? Does it manufacture nuclear weapons? Landmines? Assault rifles? Hand guns?
Does it torture people? Waterboard people? Imprison people?
Are there poor people in a Christian nation? Are there rich people in a Christian nation?
Does a women die from hunger in a Christian nation? Does she die from preventable disease?
Does anyone aspire to wealth in a Christian nation? Does anyone aspire to power?
When you give these questions anything more than cursory thought, they’re troubling questions indeed. Leo Tolstoy (of War and Peace fame) found himself struggling with these questions at the end of the 19th century as the nations of Europe rattled sabers and amassed massive armies in the lead-up to the first world war. Germany, Russia, France, and England all considered themselves Christian nations, yet each rallied for war, ready to murder each other by the millions against the direct prohibition of their God.
Today the governor of Texas organizes public prayer for rain while also supporting the death penalty. A presidential candidate accentuate the words “under God,” while swearing allegiance not to that God but to a nation. With a cross pinned to his lapel, a politician fights to cut funding for services to the sick and to the poor. In this midst of this, the hard analysis that Tolstoy puts forth about what it truly means to be a Christian nation is more important than ever.
In imagining a Christian society, Tolstoy looks not to Deuteronomy or Leviticus whose strict legalism lends itself to the loophole-seeking of the Pharisees, but to the Sermon on the Mount. He looks to Jesus’s commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” Rather than a legal code, Jesus commandments were appeals to the heart, statements that awoken men’s consciences to the suffering that they were causing one another so that they may truly repent of this injustice. This is the revelation of Truth, the opening of blind eyes.
To live in this Truth is not just to speak it, but to have it guide every action. This is easy enough when dealing with our families and sometimes even our neighbors. We can forgive insults, respond to hatred with love, and exhibit great generosity with our loved ones. Yet, as we expand outwards to social action, Christ’s true challenge becomes apparent. Referring to the opening questions, do I feel that there is a difference between Christ’s response and the practical response?
The great hypocrisy of war-mongering Christians deeply disturbed Tolstoy in his day, and it should likewise both every Christian of conscience today. Do we only follow Christ’s teaching in the small and convenient actions, the street-corner preaching and public acts of generosity that make us feel self-righteous, or do we follow it when it’s difficult?
It is not difficult to wave a picture of an aborted fetus in front of a Planned Parenthood building. It is difficult to provided a pregnant mother with the social and financial support she needs to continue the pregnancy. Which do we do?
It is not difficult for an American to preach an end to human rights abuses in Iran. It is difficult for an American to take a stand against torture carried out by our own government. Which do we do?
It is not difficult to wear TOMS shoes and Falling Whistles necklaces. It is difficult to quit your job at the corporation that profits from the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable. Which do we do?
Tolstoy’s thesis is that a veneer of Christianity does not make either a person or a nation Christian. It is the integration of Christ’s principles into every individual action in my life and the refusal to cooperate with anything that is counter to those principles.
It’s a bold proposition, indeed. When Mohandas Gandhi read The Kingdom of God Is Within You while he was in South Africa, it helped inspire his first Satyagraha campaign against the abuses of the British. What revolution is in store for America is we too could take this message to heart?
What happens when Christian consumers refuse to support businesses that exploit their workers, but support worker cooperatives instead?
What happens when Christian juries refuses to condemn drug addicts to jail, but open drug treatment programs instead?
What happens when Christian men and women refuse to join the military, but join interfaith groups to build bridges of understanding instead?
These are the questions that Tolstoy asks and they’re deeply challenging for those who prefer a convenient Christianity that asks nothing of its followers except a Sunday lip service and a cross hung around the neck. Christ’s Truth was revolutionary and he was hung on a cross between two revolutionaries for it. What happens when Christians take up that revolutionary charge today?(less)
**spoiler alert** One of the most infuriating books I have ever read. That such a miscarriage of justice could occur in my homeland just sickens me. T...more**spoiler alert** One of the most infuriating books I have ever read. That such a miscarriage of justice could occur in my homeland just sickens me. This is definitely required reading for anyone interested in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.(less)
Another Voice of Witness masterpiece. The stories within are both inspiring and devastating. A must read for anyone interested in the human rights cri...moreAnother Voice of Witness masterpiece. The stories within are both inspiring and devastating. A must read for anyone interested in the human rights crisis in Burma today.(less)