Tag Archives: Books

Book Review: The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs

Just finished reading Jeffrey Sachs’s awe-inspiring The Price of Civilization.

I picked up Jeffrey Sachs’ The Price of Civilization mainly because I opted for economics this time as opposed to science and philosophy (what I read, mostly). I had to decide between the Nobel-prize winner in economics Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! and this book. I picked Sachs’ for 1) his substantial experience in macroeconomics and shaping/reforming economies abroad (though I disagree – or does not know how I feel – about shock therapy as a solution to hyperinflation); 2) his background in development, sustainability, and developing political economy/economic theories; 3) being a globalization guru when talking about economy and politics; and, lastly 4) where he stands politically, socially, and environmentally (I did not sense any glaring biases in his analysis towards any party – he equally criticized both as argument demands).

In part one of the book, he diagnoses the economic crises, addresses Washington’s disconnect from the public, dissects “the free-market fallacy” in light of globalization and its effects on American society, politics, and good citizenship. Part two of the book is titled “The Path to Prosperity.” Prosperity that is lost in today’s economy. He argues that it is only with a mindful society, informed citizenry, and politically active public that we can move forward. He is very optimistic with the change our generation, The Millennial generation, will bring about. One that I personally look forward to.

Apart from that, he brings up an interesting point that the government, or various administrations, is not the only one to blame (though it’s got the lion’s share) for the economic mess we inherit; the public also shares some responsibility. The public has long lost its trust in the government, disengaged and polarized politically and socially; one argues for more government while the other argues for little to none. This left us fragmented, distracted, and simply unaware of powerful lobbing at work. Corporatocracy has distractedly and wrongly told the public that over-commercialism, over-consumption, low taxes, and short-sightedness are the solutions to our problems. These “solutions” augment our problems rather than remedy them, and he explains why.

The not-so-economics-savvy me found this book enlightening on so many levels. While I recognize America’s economic plight, I did not know, or was simply oblivious to, the core problems that spiraled us down (aside from those on the surface such as Wall Street market collapse of 2008, housing bubble, etc.). In a nutshell, the book strongly argues for a mixed-economy (the middle path as one may put it), one that has the private sector as well as the government wheeling the economy forward. Sachs recognizes, however, that the current government and political system, corporatocracy as he puts it, are not only incompetent but greatly corrupted by lobbies vested interests. It is imperative then that the reforms he puts forward include reforming the government through “honest, open, and transparent problem solving,” taking money out of politics, etc. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to move from short-term planning with little execution, to long-term planning and actually execution. America’s infrastructure is deteriorating, so as its healthcare system, science and engineering sectors, and its standing as the world’s leading economy. I think it is important to note that Sachs is not socialist, but a hardcore capitalist who believes that economic forces are not sufficient to run a marketplace.

My views resonant with those of his in that in order to live a healthy, sustainable, and happy life we need “to be ready to pay the price of civilization through multiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educating ourselves deeply about society’s needs, acting as vigilant stewards for future generations, and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together.” He beautifully explains the challenges, and solutions, surrounding taking this route.

So, all in all, Sachs’ book gives us a clear, honest, and socially-responsible diagnosis of our political and economic crisis. It also provides a road-map, if you will, that walks us through how to get out of the pit.

Strongly recommended!

The Distracted Society

I’m almost done reading The Price of Civilization by Jeffery D. Sachs. I have to say that this book is invaluable to learn a LOT about not only mixed-market economy, but also why America’s economy and politics are crippled. He does not take the usual government is bad, deregulation is bad, capitalism sucks type argument. Instead, he outlines how globalization, society (us, people!), and government share some responsibility as to how we got awry economically, politically, and socially.

Here’s an excerpt which I like and thought about sharing. It argues that the “Age of Information” may/does not necessarily mean we are more educated, prosperous, and have peace of mind.

Chapter 8: The Distracted Society

An epidemic of ignorance

Print media continues its long-term decline. In 1960, print delivered an estimated 26 percent of words transmitted. By 2008, that had declined to 9 percent. While TV absorbed 42 percent of the daily hours the average American spends receiving information, print media accounted for a meager 5 percent. Reading for fun is a disappearing practice among the young, and the purchases of books went into a steep decline a decade ago. As Americans stop reading, ignorance of basic facts, especially scientific facts about such politically charged issues as climate change, has soared. Reading proficiency is also plummeting.

It would be a profound irony if the new “information age” in fact coincides with the collapse of the public’s basic knowledge regarding key issues that we confront both as individuals and as citizens. It’s far too early to tell whether the Internet and other connected devices will end up leaving society dumber or better informed. Will video games and online streaming of entertainment end up crowing out more meaningful reading and gathering of information? These risks seem real, at least according to the flood of recent books such as The Dumbest Generation, Idiot America, The Age of American Unreason, and Just How Stupid Are We?

Recent polling data and academic studies do suggest that American lack basic shared factual knowledge. As one author recently put it, “The insulted mindset of individuals who know precious little history and civics and never read a book or visit a museum is fast becoming a common, shame-free condition.”[1] If American high school test scores continue to rank poorly relative to other countries, so, too, will our economic prosperity, sense of economic security, and place in the world. Even more ominously, our capacity as citizens will collapse if we lack the shared knowledge to take on challenges such as balancing the federal budget and responding to human-induced climate change.

The Pew Research Center occasionally surveys the basic knowledge of the American public in its News IQ Quiz[2]. At the end of 2010, only 15 percent could identify the prime minister of the United Kingdom and only 38 percent could choose the incoming U.S. House Speaker from a list of four names. Slightly under half (46 percent) knew that the Republicans would control the lower house of Congress but not the Senate. And 39 percent correctly picked out defense as the largest budget item in a list that included Social Security, interest on the debt, and Medicare. None of these gaps in knowledge is a cardinal sin. As Pew put it, “the public knows basic facts about politics, economics, but struggles with specifics.” But when the country must grapple with complex choices about taxes, spending, military outlays, and the rest, the lack of basic knowledge becomes dangerous. A poorly informed public is much more easily swayed by propaganda and much less able to resist the dark maneuvers of the special-interest groups that pull the strings in Washington.

This book is heavily supported by facts and evidence. I very much encourage you to buy the book if you’re interested in learning about mixed-economy concept, current political and economical deadlock,  and how we can move forward and recover from such crisis.


[1] Mark Bauerkeubm The Dumbest Generation (New York: Penguin, 2008), p. 16.

[2] Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Public Knows Basic Facts About Politics, Economics, but Struggles with Specifics,” November 2010.

Book #1 for the Summer . . .

I like to read. A lot.

Sadly because of work and academics I was not able to read as much, leisurely that is. There is something enjoyable and rather connecting about reading a book for fun versus for class. Anyways, I generated a preliminary summer read list (I will post sometimes soon) but could not decide which book to go first.

So I narrowed it down to Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now and Jeff Sachs’s The Price of Civilization. After some contemplation I chose the latter. It triumphed for not only I think it will help me understand the former better, but also because of two sentences caught my eyes in the preface:

“Let us tip our hats to the young people throughout America and around the world who want to create societies that are fairer, happier, and environmentally sustainable. This book is for them, for they will be the ones to reclaim out shared values and to renew the democratic spirit in the years ahead.” (Sachs. 2011).

And another sentence on page one:

“The economic crisis of recent years reflects a deep, threatening, and ongoing deterioration of our national politics and culture of power.” (Sachs. 2011)

The trick worked. My views resonant with those mentioned above. I’m interested to explore his argument regarding creating a better society and restoring “an ethos of social responsibility.”

Thought I’d share that with the world….

Iraq; some thoughts..

Deborah Amos,

Deborah Amos, “Eclipse of the Sunnis”

So, first off, I haven’t blogged in eons now. It’s a rather hard task balancing between work and academics, let alone blogging. Regardless, I’ve been trying to put together something talking about my life in Baghdad and how I ended up being an “exile.” So until then…

Recently, two weeks ago specifically, I started reading Deborah Amos’s “Eclipse of the Sunnis.”  This book has been one of the best books I’ve read this year. I recall shedding a tear reading the first 10 pages. It talks about post-war Iraq, the large refugee crisis that followed, and the spill of Iraq’s war into the region. It focuses more on the geopolitical transformations and security vacuum followed the US-backed invasion, than talking about the refugee crisis itself. She definitely uses personal anecdotes from Iraqi exiles in Damascus, Jordan, Sweden, and London, raising questions about the future and quality of life of these exiles, as well as,  implications in shaping Iraqi’s nationstate.

Here, I will be quoting Amos because her book portrays Iraq almost vividly. The following quotes explain not only things I lived through and managed to survive, but also they detail daily lives of millions of Iraqis at home today…

So let’s start with what is Iraq? When exiles reminisce about good ole days of Iraq, we usually compare today to pre-war Iraq. But was pre-war Iraq a good Iraq to start with? Were we actually unified as a nation under Saddam Hussain? Paying loyalties to Iraq, serving the country, and its people for the common good? Or were we simply scared to say no to authority. Were we secretly hating each other, and loyal to our own sect and/or religious cult? Did Iraqis live a lie that they all loved each other and shared the belief that Saddam sucked, but they had to submit to the one and only secular, nationalist, pan-Arab Saddam?

“Syria and Iraq..long the rival [cities] in Islamic history, and geopolitical rivals in modern times, are consumed with the questions of identity. In one, a Baathist state had tightened its grip on power; in the other, it had been blown away, opening a vacuum into which the politics of rival identities had flowed with catastrophic results. For Iraq, the forces that divided the country after 2003 were far stronger than the history that had unified the people. Banditry and breakdown in Iraq had led to mass exodus and internal displacement. In 2009, the unanswered question ‘What is Iraq?’ discomforted Arab neighbors and kept the exiles from returning. They were still unwilling to bet their lives and the future on their homeland until they were sure of the answer.”

When I was in Syria, I was planning on studying abroad – as in outside the Middle East. 1) I couldn’t go back to Iraq, not only because it was risky, but also because I didn’t have a house to go back to; 2) There was no country in the Arab world that would grant me visa simply because I was Iraqi; 3) The Syrian government – so as other Arab countries – treated Iraqis as tourists (ineligible to work) and as international students when they decided to enroll in college. This meant that I had to pay somewhere between 200-250% more than a domestic Syrian student had to pay- something unrealistic at the time.

“We have learned over time that Iraqis have lost hope. They don’t believe in a future any longer. They have become survivors.”

Finally, this quote describes what I lived through. From constant fear of getting kidnapped (myself of members of the family), being unlucky enough to have a bomb go off in my vicinity, have my car/house stolen, or simply get attacked by armed men, at a fake security checkpoint because my name suggest I belong to a specific sect of Islam. As the above quote suggested, I was surviving in Iraq.

“By 2009, [Iraq] was ranked as the most corrupt country in the Arab world, and the fourth most corrupt among all nations… Baghdad had developed into a kleptocracy that rivaled Nigeria… Iraq [is] still a place of militias and unemployment, with intermittent bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. [The] medical care remained far below pre-war standards. Electricity and water supplies were undependable at best. The capital was a cantonized city controlled by armed guards at checkpoints. The sectarian police force was deeply corrupt. There was no longer such a thing as a Baghdadi – just Sunni or Shiites. An Iraqi could still be the wrong kind of Muslim for a particular neighborhood.”

I still remember that one time when I was on the bus returning to Baghdad when an Iraqi border officer got on the bus and asked me to get off the bus… My life flashed back before my eyes!

One final note, please do not pity me. I’m a strongly motivated, determined man who has acquired survival skills to let him turn negative feelings into positive ones. I appreciate everything I’ve been through!

The Procession of Reading Children’s and Classic’s Books

Every phase of life has its own readings that enrich this phase. When I was a child, I liked reading a lot, particularly the ones who communicate with me, which build up my mind and plant morals and ethics. Children’s books like scientific or fiction has a simple language that strengthens the reading passion in me. Now, as a grown up, I love to read a lot, but the only difference is that I read some classic books. I have to admit that in classic books, I found the pleasure of reading, I’m impressed by how clear, serene, and solid the words are, my brain imaginatively recreate what the words just implies. “When I had read this story to the end, I was filled with awe. I could not remain in my room and went out of doors. I felt as if I were locked up in a ward too,” Vladimir Ilyich Lenin once said. The classis books paint me a picture of what life at that time look like. The classic books writings have been developed during the past 100 years.

 

Naguib Mahfouz, one of the best-known Arabic novelists of the 20th century, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, has incredible books. For instance “Bayn Al Qasrain,” is one of the most encyclopedic books. It’s like moving diagrams of how the Egyptian community was looked like. This particular book picturing the Egyptian collapsed society. Mahfouz usually talked about controversial subjects, for example, the British occupation. Moreover, he mentioned Egyptians daily life and how they suffered, during the occupation. Mahfouz supported his piece by examples and facts derived from Egyptians social life. “When disasters come at the same time, they compete with each other,” Mahfouz said. I believe that this book is an immortal book, that Egyptians take it as a reference of their life at that time.

 

The second impressible author I admire, Charles Dickens. Through his fiction, Dickens did much to highlight the worst abuse in 19th century society. He was influenced by his youth readings and even by the childhood stories. In spite of all his life discomforts, he was more like Shakespeare, touched a range of readers, which was perhaps his greatest talent.

 

Just on his second novel, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes characters from many different social and economic levels. The novel is set against the background of the New Poor Law of 1834, which established a system of workhouses for those who, because of poverty, sickness, mental disorder, or age, could not provide themselves. Young Oliver Twist, an orphan, spends his first nine years in a “baby farm,” a workhouse for children in which only the hardiest survive. Then he goes to London, and falls in with a gang of youthful thieves. Dickens renders a powerful and generally realistic description of this criminal.  Later, he contrasted the squalor and cruelty of the workhouse and the evilness city with the peace and love Oliver found in the country at the Maylies’ home.

 

As a result, I cannot cut off that a one should read only either children’s or classic books, but I can say that a one should read whatever book that satisfy his interest. Robertson Davies, a Canadian novelist and critic, said, “A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” That kind of books is what I call an immortal book.