With a page count a bit lower than Civilization, The Great Degeneration is based on his 2012 "Reith Lectures" on the BBC and walks through four institutions that Ferguson sees as crucial to the prosperity of the modern state. Faced with growing symptoms of decline, such as slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior, Ferguson believes that our institutional degeneration may be the major cause.
Ferguson opens by first addressing other arguments about why wealthy countries have declined. China and India's impressive economic growth, in contrast to relative stagnation in western democracies, is not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the West, but is also a result of actual decline in real terms in western countries of certain institutions, especially in the decline of political, economic, legal and social institutions.
The west's success, relative to "the rest," over the last few centuries has been in large part due to four institutions: democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and civil society.
Democracy has deteriorated not so much due to access, but rather due to the breakdown of the social contract between generations, says Ferguson. For this, he cites the expensive benefits that older generations have voted themselves to be left to the next generation to pay for, noting that Edmund Burke, in his Reflections On The Revolution In France saw the generations as an important part of the social contract. By taking on astronomical amounts of debt, we have put future generations on the hook for our expensive lifestyles.
When it comes to capitalism, Ferguson is not so much anti-regulation as he is anti-bad regulation. There is not such thing as a market without some kind of regulation, he says, but the regulation must makes sense and malefactors must be made to pay. On the contrary, in the recent recession, Wall Street came out ahead, despite risky behavior and dangerous bets, while average Americans bailed them out with giant debt producing stimulus packages.
Where once the rule of law protected contracts and property rights, tort law has slowed down the legal system, raised the costs of doing business, increased the costs of products, and failed to produce a corresponding benefit, stifling innovation and creativity.
It is when Ferguson reaches civil society that I am most intrigued. He quotes from both Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray, both landmark works on the dramatic decrease in voluntary associations over the last century. Where as at one point both wealthy and poor attended the same churches, participated in the same organizations (think Lions Club or Rotary or even Boy Scouts), and lived in the same neighborhoods, recent decades have seen lower and lower membership and participation in these voluntary associations that have brought people together for a common purpose. Instead, government has replaced these voluntary associations in many cases as the source of resort and not often with improved results. We may have more "Friends" on Facebook, but the relationships there are no more substantial than the effort to click "Like." The result is less civic-mindedness and less civic-participation.
And no, showing up to vote does not reflect civic participation. Voter turnout is merely a symptom of increased, or decreased, civic engagement.
Since I listened to the book over the course of several days commute and while doing a bit of home improvement, I found the shorter analysis and references to other works useful and was unsurprised to hear, as Ferguson closed up the book, that it was based on a series of lectures. While The Great Degeneration is a fascinating, if bite-sized, look at the problems assailing western civilization, it proceeds along lines that are more prescriptive than proscriptive. As a gateway, however, it is a starting point, and on that score, I recommend it as a place to begin your examination of the future of our democracy. ...more
I’ve long had a fascination with the characters and politics of ancient Rome, whether it be the Republican Period or the Imperial Period that followedI’ve long had a fascination with the characters and politics of ancient Rome, whether it be the Republican Period or the Imperial Period that followed the fall of the Republic. However, the most fascinating time for me, perhaps because of the vivid and larger-than-life characters in the cast, the gruesome violence of its politics, and the sheer scale of the stage (from the tip of Spain west to the far shores of the Black Sea east, from the shores of Britain north to the deserts of Africa and the Nile south), is the period as the Republic began to falter and fail and the Roman Empire began to ascend. Perhaps this period has gained even more currency with me recently because so much of our own politics in many ways echoes the arguments and politics of the Roman Republic. As I have listened, and occasionally participated in, debates and discussions about the role of government, I have heard arguments not unlike those that once were made in the Forum by senators of Rome. How much power should government have, what government should, and shouldn’t, do for the people, whether we should engage in wars far across the ocean, whether we should be nation building, what should we do with the many millions of people immigrating across our borders, who should be an American, and so on, and so on. Long before the modern American Republic encountered these issues, the Roman people—under the Republic—debated these issues from in the Forum of Rome. With these thoughts in mind, as well as a love for gritty and real bare knuckle politics of ancient Rome, I picked up Tom Holland’s book. Told in a narrative style with vibrant language, the story reads with novel like ease and speed. But for footnotes and awareness of the history being accounted from other sources, I might have wondered at the fictional like quality to it. All the great names of Roman history are present. Julius Caesar and his legions. Marcus Cicero, the oratorical giant. Pompey the Great, hero and megalomaniac. Cleopatra, seducer, queen and Pharaoh-goddess. And, of course, my favorite, Cato, the Spartan like idealist and champion of Republican principles, falling upon his sword rather than surrender to dictatorship as Caesar’s army marches on Utica. I usually confine my gym reading to “fun stuff,” like novels and other brain candy. However, I found that Holland’s history was sufficiently enjoyable that I had difficulty picking up other books for the duration of the read, including at the gym. For those who complain that history is boring, a list of “one thing after another,” Holland’s Rubicon may be for them. For in it, they may find that ‘yes,’ history does seem to repeat itself, but no, it is not just one thing after another, nor is it boring. Roman history, especially in Holland’s telling, is as vibrant, alive, and violent as the Italian operas that their descendants would write over fifteen hundred years later. Rubicon is, ultimately, a tragic tale marked by violence, civil war, conquest and the fall of the world’s longest standing republic. As the turmoil begins to end, we see Octavian rise as the second Caesar, but really as the first emperor, of Rome. His long life and mostly peaceful reign were a marked difference from the tumultuous years of the Republics fall, and they gave rise to a different period in Rome’s, and the West’s, history. It would be more than seventeen hundred years before another republic with Rome’s staying power was established. As the only constant in history is change, as I closed the book, I could not help but wonder how long our republic will last. I don’t mean to speak doom and gloom by saying so, only to point out that human nature is tends to bring about repetition of history, including the failures of democracies and republics alike. How long can ours last? Even if it is only at mid-point or, to be optimistic, a relative beginning, what duration can it have? And will the causes of Rome’s fall also cause ours to fall? ...more
It's guys like Scott Rothstein that give attorneys a bad name. And it's guys like Alan Sakowitz that prove that humanity is, at its heart, good.
I receIt's guys like Scott Rothstein that give attorneys a bad name. And it's guys like Alan Sakowitz that prove that humanity is, at its heart, good.
I recently finished "Miles Away, Worlds Apart" by Alan Sakowitz, an attorney and real estate investor whose path crossed with Scott Rothstein, an attorney and one time Ponzi scheme artist. Billed by some as a "criminal thriller," I found it to be more of cautionary tale, a combination memoir and homage to the good people in Sakowitz's life compared to the tragic flamboyance that he found in Scott Rothstein.
Sakowitz first met Rothstein when he was invited to participate in an investment in what was billed as "structured settlements," a scheme that would return investment of at least 20 percent, often more, in as short a time as three months. The structured settlements turned out to actually be pre-settlement funding or financing, and the promised return on investment would often be astronomical, even unbelievable. Investors, upon committing to secrecy, were investing large amounts of money and receiving large returns. Rothstein was a respected member of the bar, a partner in a reputable and growing law firm, politically well connected, and philanthropically generous. His sales pitch was convincing, and people were trusting him with their money to the tune of over $1.2 billion dollars.
But, as has been astutely noted elsewhere, "if it's too good to be true, it probably is," and so thought Sakowitz. A veteran real estate investor and attorney, he began to do his due diligence on the scheme, and red flags began to pop up everywhere. The more he researched, the more questionable the investment seemed, and the less the numbers would add up. Finally, he concluded that what was going on had to be illegal, and he called the FBI.
The rest is history. Rothstein fled to Morocco just in front of an FBI warrant to search his law offices, one of a few countries that does not have an extradition treaty to the United States. He returned later, upon pleading from his partners, and turned himself into the FBI to cooperate in their investigation. Disbard for life, he was later sentenced to 50 years in prison, and is serving his time in a federal detention center in Miami.
That's the Rothstein story, but it's not half of the book. What makes Sakowitz's book interesting and worth reading is the dichotomous nature in which he has written it. Instead of weaving a tale about Rothstein's corruption, hubris, and crimes, which he does do, Sakowitz also intersperes the account with anecdotes about the selfless individuals that have added value and meaning to Sakowitz's life. His stories include those of his parents, rabbis, community members, individuals he admires from afar, and others who he has seen selflessly give of themselves to others. It is intended as a contrast to Rothstein's selfishness, and it is an intimate and touching portrait of many of the unsung heroes of our world. All too often we hear and read about the people and egos who thrust themselves into our consciousness in the news and media, and it is refreshing to hear the stories of those who quietly go about doing good without any hope or expectation of reward. Although I do not share Sakowitz's faith, as a person of faith myself, I found much in Sakowitz's book in common with people in my own life, and I was inspired by the thought that there are people out there doing good for good's sake alone.
Scott Rothstein was a selfish fool, and his greed hurt a lot of people. But fortunately, there are good people out there, too and in Sakowitz's account we see a few of them. They are unsung, usually, and only quietly going about doing good. But it is their actions and choices that give me hope that in the end we can choose the good side of our nature--what Sakowitz calls the "right side" of our hearts--over the bad....more