Tag Archives: business

Animal cruelty, pigs in shit, and the end of the human race

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A review of Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

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I am not now, nor have I ever been, a vegetarian. However, living as I do in Berkeley, California, from time to time I find myself in the minority at dinners and potlucks. So, as you might imagine, over the years I’ve come to hear most of the arguments against eating animals. 

One thing has always puzzled me about the torrent of passion that invariably erupts when I question why I, or anyone else, should become a vegetarian (much less a vegan): apart from a few rejoinders that the practice of limiting my diet to plants will improve my health, extend my life, and make me a better person overall, most — maybe 80 percent of the verbiage — concerns cruelty to animals.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like furry little animals as well as the next person. Over the course of my long life, I’ve had dogs, cats, and rabbits as well as a few less cuddly animals such as turtles and fish as (dare I say it?) pets. Nor do I kick dogs or other helpless beasts when I’m angry or frustrated with other human beings.

But why do so many people justify vegetarianism on the basis of animal cruelty when the practice of raising animals for food in factory farms promises to drown our country in shit and spew so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that it may eventually inundate low-lying coastal cities like Berkeley and make our planet uninhabitable for the human race? 

Where’s your perspective, people? Cheez! We’re already eliminating a million species a year from the biosphere by encroaching on animal habitat and screwing with the climate, and you’re worried about hurting chickens and cows?

Do I want to hurt chickens or cows? Of course not! I’ve even petted a heifer or two myself over the years. But still . . .

To give due credit, Jonathan Safran Foer does explain some of the environmental consequences of factory farming in Eating Animals. But his foray into the hidden depths of this tragically misconceived industry is almost exclusively focused on — guess what? — animal cruelty. His descriptions of the way animals are treated are purposely graphic and sometimes hard to take. PETA will love this book. If you don’t have an iron stomach, you might not.

Eating Animals is Foer’s first venture into book-length nonfiction. It’s his fourth book. The novels that preceded it, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, have attracted critical acclaim, including a number of literary awards, and both are being adapted to film. (He also produced a strange  work of fiction that was more a sculpture than a book.) For what it’s worth, I tried reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but couldn’t get past the first few pages. However, Eating Animals is brilliantly crafted. Foer’s writing style, perhaps even his personality, come through loud and clear. He’s obviously a brilliant young man, and if he can avoid falling prey to the silly experimentalism of some of his early work, he’s got a great career ahead of him.

Oh, by the way, are you wondering why I haven’t become a vegetarian? Well, that’s another story . . .

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The 12 best nonfiction books I’ve read in 2012

This was going to be a list of 10 books, but I couldn’t resist adding another two. It’s been a great year for nonfiction.

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1. Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Review to be posted Dec. 10. Look for it!

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2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

A penetrating analysis of the racist underpinnings of the U.S. justice system, the result of the ill-conceived “war on drugs” and deep-seated racial fears that has led to the mass incarceration of people of color.

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3. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

This exceptionally brilliant book is the story of a long-lost poem and of the man who rediscovered it more than a thousand years later, helping to trigger an upheaval in medieval European thinking that came to be known as the Renaissance. The Swerve details the staggering impact of the poem, a 7,400-line masterpiece that laid out in minute detail the revolutionary worldview of a Greek philosopher whose greatest influence was felt two millennia after his death.

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4. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann

Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492 — and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong. In this revised edition of a 2006 bestseller, we learn that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.

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5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

An enthralling and deeply disturbing book that reads like a novel, this is a three-year study of life in a small Indian slum nestled between the new Mumbai International Airport and the five-star hotels clustered nearby. A quest to understand poverty and the ways people find to transcend it.

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6. The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

Through a geopolitical lens, Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, look a lot different than they do in most history books. Stand a few feet away from a globe and squint: if the globe is properly positioned, what you’ll see is one huge, three-tentacled landmass (Asia-Africa-Europe); a second, much smaller one that consists of two parts joined by a narrow connector (North and South America); and several even smaller bits of land scattered about on the periphery (Australia, Greenland, Japan, Indonesia). That’s the world as Robert D. Kaplan sees it in this illuminating study of world history and current events as influenced by geography.

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7. The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

A thoughtful and impeccably reasoned new book that goes straight to the heart of the conservative argument favoring limited government and coddling the rich. Rather than quibble about this program or that issue, or fasten on the transparently shoddy logic of a Republican budget that promises to reduce the federal deficit when in fact it will surely increase it, Miller and Lapham’s argument strikes at the fundamental values and assumptions underlying today’s conservatism: the myth rooted in the writing of novelist Ayn Rand of the superhuman “job creator.”

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8. Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

Focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945.  Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.

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9. Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy

The truly truly astonishing story — one with profound implications for development throughout the Global South — of how a retired Indian eye surgeon founded a nonprofit eye hospital in a southern Indian city in 1976 that is today “the largest and most productive blindness-prevention organization on the planet.” Equally important, Aravind also serves as a global resource center for opthalmology, training one out of every seven Indian eye doctors, consulting on management and technical issues with eye hospitals in 69 countries, and operating a state-of-the-art research center.

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10. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre

The mind-boggling story of six European double agents who were “turned” or recruited by the British and played roles as large as those of any American general in the success of the Normandy invasion that opened up the Western Front and the path to Allied victory.

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11. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

As ambitious as it is digestible, and written in an easy, conversational style, The Signal and the Noise explores the ins and outs of predicting outcomes not just in politics, poker, and sports as well as the stock market, the economy, the 2008 financial meltdown, weather forecasting, earthquakes, epidemic disease, chess, climate change, and terrorism.

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12. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

A fascinating account grounded in scientific research of a class of diseases known as “zoonoses,” that is, animal in origin, that encompasses AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, SARS, H5N1 — and many others of of the world’s scariest diseases. The book recaptures the drama in the lives of the research scientists, physicians, veterinarians, and others who are on the front lines of humanity’s defense against disease.

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An eminently readable book about how experts make sense of the world (or don’t)

A review of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

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Statisticians rarely become superstars, but Nate Silver is getting close. This is the guy who writes the FiveThirtyEight.com blog for the New York Times and has correctly predicted the outcome of the last two presidential elections in virtually every one of the 50 states. But Silver is no political maven weaned on election trivia at his parents’ dinner table: he earned his stripes as a prognosticator supporting himself on Internet poker and going Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s (Moneyball) one better by developing an even more sophisticated statistical analysis of what it takes to win major league baseball games. And, by the way: Silver is just 34 years old as I write this post.

The Signal and the Noise is Silver’s first book, and what a book it is! As you might expect from this gifted enfant terrible, the book is as ambitious as it is digestible. Written in an easy, conversational style, The Signal and the Noise explores the ins and outs of predicting outcomes not just in politics, poker, and sports (baseball and basketball) as well as the stock market, the economy, and the 2008 financial meltdown, weather forecasting, earthquakes, epidemic disease, chess, climate change, and terrorism.

Fundamentally, The Signal and the Noise is about the information glut we’re all drowning in now and how an educated person can make a little more sense out of it. As Silver notes, “The instinctual shortcut we take when we have ‘too much information’ is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.” What else could explain why Mitt Romney was “shell-shocked” and Karl Rove was astonished by Romney’s loss in a presidential election that every dispassionate observer knew was going Obama’s way?

Silver asserts that “our predictions may be more prone to failure in the era of Big Data. As there is an exponential increase in the amount of available information, there is likewise an exponential increase in the number of hypotheses to investigate . . . But the number of meaningful relationships in the data . . . is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world than there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.”

Sadly, it’s not just in politics that bias clouds judgment and leads to erroneous conclusions. “In 2005, an Athens-raised medical researcher named John P. Ioannidis published a controversial paper titled ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.’ The paper studied positive findings documented in peer-reviewed journals: descriptions of successful predictions of medical hypotheses carried out in laboratory experiments. It concluded that most of these findings were likely to fail when applied in the real world. Bayer Laboratories recently confirmed Ioannidis’s hypothesis. They could not replicate about two-thirds of the positive findings claimed in medical journals when they attempted the experiments themselves.”

In general, Silver’s thesis runs, “We need to stop, and admit it: we have a prediction problem. We love to predict things — and we aren’t very good at it. . . We focus on those signals that tell a story about the world as we would like it to be, not how it really is. We ignore the risks that are hardest to measure, even when they pose the greatest threats to our well-being. We make approximations and assumptions about the world that are much cruder than we realize. We abhor uncertainty, even when it is an irreducible part of the problem we are trying to solve.”

There’s more: Silver relates the work of a UC Berkeley psychology and political science professor named Philip Tetlock, who categorizes experts as either foxes or hedgehogs (in deference to an ancient Greek poet who wrote, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”). Hedgehogs traffic in Big Ideas and often hew to ideologies; these are the people who talk to the press and are frequently found on TV talk shows. Foxes are cautious types who carefully examine and weigh details before reaching conclusions. Not surprisingly, Tetlock found that “The more interviews that an expert had done with the press . . . the worse his predictions tended to be.”

In other words, Be afraid. Be very afraid. If the people who supposedly know what they’re talking about often really don’t, how can the rest of us figure out what’s going on?

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Too wild to be believed, but it’s all true: the story of America’s Banana King

A review of The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, by Rich Cohen

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Chances are, you’ve never heard of this guy. But if you’re not aware of some of the things he’s done, you’ll never be a big winner on “Jeopardy” or pass an AP test in modern world history. Just for example, he was the guy who engineered the CIA-led coup that overthrew the government of Guatemala in 1954, ushering in an era of intensified hatred for the United States throughout Latin America. He was also pivotal in the early history of Israel — as Chaim Weizmann’s favorite donor in America, as the man who pulled strings to force the release of the ship Exodus from the Port of Philadelphia and send it on its way to Israel, as the source of ocean-going ships that carried tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from displaced-person camps in Europe to Palestine, and as the central figure in persuading President Truman to support the independence of Israel. Oh, and he also helped make the banana America’s favorite fruit.

His name was Samuel Zemurray. He arrived in the United States in 1891 as a 14-year-old, a penniless Russian Jewish immigrant fresh off his father’s wheat farm in present-day Moldova. Within two decades, he was a multimillionaire, only a little past the age of 30. Having stumbled across his first banana before the turn of the century, Sam was a major factor in the banana trade by 1910, a thorn in the side of the United Fruit Company, which commanded 60 percent of the market. Unlike most of his competitors, Sam had taken up residence in Honduras, where he worked the fields alongside his men and went out drinking with them in the evenings, a beloved figure throughout banana country on the Central American isthmus despite his later reputation as the personification of American imperialism and exploitation. Two decades later, exasperated with U.F.’s incompetent, Boston-bound leadership, he engineered a takeover of the company at a time when it was on the ropes. He led U.F. (known as “The Octopus” or “El Pulpo”) back to consistent profits for 25 years, only to founder on the heels of his greatest triumph: the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz as President of Guatemala, which ironically brought to a close the era of the United Fruit Company as a landowner in Central America.

Nonfiction author Rich Cohen writes the extraordinary story of Sam Zemurray with a sure hand, delving into the recesses of the Banana King’s soul as deeply as could anyone who never met the man. His intimate, first-person style is engaging, often ironic. The Fish That Ate the Whale is a joy to read.

In the end, Cohen offers this judgment of Sam Zemurray: “If he had questioned the workings of [the] machine [he had set in motion and tended so long], he would have been a great man, but he was not a great man; he was a complicated man blessed with great energy and ideas.”

Zemurray died in his palatial New Orleans home in 1961 at the age of 84. Today, many of his descendants remain involved in Central America, as anthropologists, art experts, and in other academic pursuits. Perhaps they did come to understand the workings of Sam’s machine even though he never did.

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Set up your own religion, and make a billion dollars

A review of Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, by Janet Reitman @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986 at the age of 74, one of the world most confounding and controversial public figures passed from the scene — though not from memory.

  • Borrowing a 19th-century approach to mental therapy from psychiatrists Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer, and others, as the basis for his own self-help method, Hubbard had become psychiatry’s most prominent critic for its dismissal of the therapeutic techniques he claimed could be administered by anyone without the benefit of training in medicine or psychology.
  • Having declared in 1945 when flat broke that he would found his own religion, by the time of his death he had built a worldwide “church” through which he amassed an estate of $400 million—$826 million in 2012 dollars.
  • Never having graduated from college, he styled himself as an explorer, a nuclear physicist, and a philosopher with advanced degrees to match, all the figments of his fertile imagination.
  • A second-rate writer of pulp adventure fiction in the 1930s and of science fiction in the 1940s and 50s, he attained a ranking on the New York Times bestseller list only through his self-help book, Dianetics, published when Hubbard was approaching age 40.
  • Upon his passing, Hubbard had achieved a semblance of immortality, elevated to spiritual sainthood by millions of followers around the world who treated his every written word and every utterance as unchallengeable truth.

Adding to the irony of Hubbard’s existence, this champion of mental health and outspoken opponent of psychiatry spent his last several years, by all accounts, an abusive and paranoiac lunatic whose erratic behavior was moderated only by the very anti-psychotic drugs he had crusaded against for more than three decades.

Thus ended the life of the founder of Scientology.

Since Hubbard had failed to name a successor, a vicious struggle for power in the “church” ensued upon his death. In hindsight, however, the victor in this struggle had been foreordained. Beginning four years earlier, once Hubbard had gone into seclusion, his whereabouts a secret from all but a handful of his staff, a 19-year-old named David Miscavige had begun forcing out all those in Scientology’s leadership who stood in his way. The process resembled nothing so much as the purges launched by Josef Stalin in the 1920s following the death of Lenin. By 1988, the 25-year-old Miscavige stood at the pinnacle, the undisputed leader.

To judge from Janet Reitman’s exhaustively researched and detailed reporting in Inside Scientology, Miscavige has run the multi-faceted Scientology establishment for nearly a quarter-century now with a style that is at once obsessive, rigid, humorless, unforgiving, and dedicated almost exclusively to the pursuit of profit. He appears to exhibit virtually none of L. Ron Hubbard’s good qualities—irresistible charm, a forgiving nature, managerial ability, and a lively imagination—and all of his bad ones, including extreme litigiousness and a tendency to strike out at those closest to him. In recent years, Reitman reports, Miscavige has even demonstrated a clear pattern of severe paranoia much like what drove Hubbard into seclusion, sometimes attacking aides and senior executives with physical violence, at other times submitting them (or anyone else who so much as utters a hint of criticism) to humiliating punishment.

Just as he had engineered the “first Exodus” from Scientology on his drive to power in the 1980s, Miscavige’s extreme behavior led to a second Exodus in the middle of the last decade, driving away most of the senior executives who had managed the far-flung business, in some cases for decades.

As you’re no doubt aware, the Internal Revenue Service classified the Church of Scientology as a religion, exempting all its innumerable affiliates and subsidiaries from the payment of Federal taxes and allowing them to receive tax-deductible donations. However, what you may not be aware—I certainly wasn’t, before reading Reitman’s book—is that the agreement signed by the “church” and the IRS in 1993 came about because the then-Director of Internal Revenue cried chicken in the face of literally thousands of lawsuits filed by the Scientology establishment under Miscavige’s direction and its constant use of private detectives to harass and apparently even blackmail IRS agents and staff.

Janet Reitman’s book began as an article in Rolling Stone magazine but took years to complete. It’s a stellar example of the reporter’s craft, balanced and objective. Yes, balanced: Reitman quotes Scientology officials and long-time faithful adherents at length — and even in the book’s closing thoughts — demonstrating that for some, perhaps a great many, who give over their lives to Hubbard’s “technology” (as he styled it), life can be rewarding. However, there are far too many former Scientologists who have spoken out, especially in recent years, blasting Miscavige’s administration if not the core ideas of Scientology itself, to think of this now six-decade-old movement as anything other than a diversified, multinational business built by a movement that operates precisely like the cult it is so often accused of being.

Like McDonald’s, which earns more revenue from its real estate than from Big Macs and Chicken Nuggets, the Church of Scientology now derives the lion’s share of its income from its real estate holdings around the world. Other businesses contribute additional funds. And yet the “church” itself seemingly continues to gush money, even as the faith is in decline: one of its centers alone, in Clearwater, Florida, the movement’s spiritual headquarters, reportedly was grossing more than $1 million a week as recently as a decade ago. If that’s the case, and hundreds of other Scientology centers in cities and towns around the world remain in business only because they’re profitable (the yardstick the “church” applies), I can’t begin to imagine how large is the asset base ruled today by David Miscavige. If he began 24 years ago with the equivalent of the $826 million that Hubbard left to the movement, surely the “church” today possesses wealth in the billions.

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An engaging story about kids, playgrounds, and one hugely successful social entrepreneur

A review of KaBoom! How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play, by Darrell Hammond

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A little more than two years ago I found myself immersed up to my eyeballs in a new venture dedicated to fostering the spirit of play among disadvantaged children. That venture — a mission-driven, for-profit company — was the One World Futbol Project, just then founded by the husband and wife team of Tim Jahnigen and Lisa Tarver. Tim had invented an extraordinary new soccer ball that never goes flat, needs no pump or needle, and goes on playing even if it’s punctured. The Project opened for business shortly afterward during the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg. Our goal was to distribute one million One World Futbols within three years to children and young people in refugee camps, war zones, impoverished villages, and low-income urban neighborhoods around the world.

What had drawn me to the One World Futbol Project when Tim and Lisa showed me a prototype ball late in 2009 was not the opportunity to give poor kids what would probably be their first ball to play with. For me, the Project wasn’t about play, or sports. I was drawn in by the way so many UN agencies, schools, and NGOs were using soccer as a teaching tool, offering games that helped children acquire insights and skills in conflict resolution, self-confidence, teamwork, gender equity, and HIV/AIDs awareness.

In other words, as I saw it, the One World Futbol could speed community development efforts where poor people lived. That, to me, was a no-brainer, since I’ve been concerned throughout my life with the challenges of global poverty. (Now I’m even writing a book on that topic.) As the business began organizing in the spring of 2010, I became one of four partners. Both Tim and Lisa have continued ever since to emphasize the importance of play in child development, and I even attended a presentation by Dr. Stuart Brown, one of the world’s leading authorities on play. Still, I didn’t get it.

Then I read Darell Hammond’s surprisingly powerful little book, KaBoom! I think I get it now: if kids are deprived of opportunities to play — not twiddling thumbs on video games but creating their own games and rough-housing out-of-doors — the ill effects are evident and provable in their later lives.

Less than 20 years ago, Darell co-founded KaBoom!, a nonprofit organization that builds playgrounds in disadvantaged neighborhoods in North American towns and cities. Darell himself grew up in difficult circumstances (though he didn’t see it that way), and he never finished college, but he proved himself to be a brilliant leader — enough so that he’s now Dr. Hammond, having received an honorary Doctorate from the college he briefly attended.

Since the mid-1990s, KaBoom! has built more than 2,000 playgrounds throughout North America, and it’s estimated that its training, advisory services, and online tools have enabled others to build 10 times that many over the same period. KaBoom! has become a model of social entrepreneurship and a superb example of how nonprofit leaders can equal the very best managers to be found in the private sector. These are all truly remarkable accomplishments.

KaBoom! (the book) is really three books in one. It’s Darell’s story, and the organization’s — an important story, told with charm and unflagging honesty. It’s an essay on the importance of play and the implications for public policy. And it’s a how-to manual for communities to build playgrounds themselves.

If you’re a social entrepreneur or just want to learn more about social entrepreneurship, you owe it to yourself to read at least the first half of this book.

Oh, and by the way: that goal of the One World Futbol Project to distribute one million balls in our first three years? With a generous boost from Chevrolet, we’re on track to meet it!

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A mind-boggling tale: How America rearmed to win World War II

A review of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

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Since I was born six months before the U.S. entry into World War II, I grew up familiar with a long list of names — little-heard now, more than half a century later — that were associated with the U.S. role in the war that seized hold of Planet Earth for a half-dozen years and set America’s course as a superpower for the balance of the 20th Century. Jimmy Doolittle, Henry Kaiser, George Marshall, Hap Arnold, Curtis LeMay, Paul Tibbetts, and a host of others — every one of whom figures in the epic story so skillfully told in Freedom’s Forge.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Freedom’s Forge focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945.  Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.

Nothing since — not the Apollo moon landings, not the war in Vietnam, not even America’s protracted wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East — has come even remotely close to the magnitude of World War II. Over the five-year period from July 1940, when the U.S. began to rearm, until August 1945, when Japan surrendered, “America’s shipyards had launched 141 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, and . . . almost 52 million tons of merchant shipping. Its factories turned out 88,410 tanks and self-propelled guns, 257,000 artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.6 million machine guns — and 41 billion rounds of ammunition. As for aircraft, the United States had produced 324,750, averaging 170 a day since 1942.”

Can the human mind today even comprehend what must have been involved in manufacturing 300,000 airplanes and 100 aircraft carriers?

This staggering output of weapons came as a result of a profound transformation of the American economy, engineered in significant part by Bill Knudsen and Henry Kaiser. The two could hardly have been more different, and they didn’t like each other. Knudsen was a modest and unassuming Danish immigrant who worked closely with Henry Ford on the Model T and later built and ran General Motors into the world’s largest industrial corporation, dwarfing Ford’s output. Kaiser, a West Coast construction magnate who was the son of German immigrants, was flashy, outgoing, and immoderately persuasive — a model of self-promotion. Together with a host of others in and out of government, these two men led the conversion of the U.S. economy to unparalleled heights as the “arsenal of freedom.” Nonetheless, “[i]n 1945 Americans ate more meat, bought more shoes and gasoline, and used more electricity than they had before Hitler invaded France.”

Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading Freedom’s Forge, there was one discordant note. Author Arthur Herman, a free-market conservative who wrote this book as a visiting scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, advanced a political message throughout. That message could be summed up as “FDR, the New Deal, labor unions — bad. Business, businessmen, military leaders — good.” He could hardly have been more blatant. But the man writes well, and he did a stellar job of telling this unimaginably complex story between the covers of a single volume.

In the conclusion, Herman quotes Josef Stalin when he first met at Tehran with Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943: he “raised his glass in a toast ‘to American production, without which this war would have been lost.'” There could be no higher praise for capitalism, coming as it did from the dictator of the Communist Soviet Union.

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A technology maven’s vision of humanity’s bright future

A review of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

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Peter Diamandis envisions a world in which humanity triumphs against all its challenges, from climate change, overpopulation, and poverty to the planetary deficits in energy and water.

This is not science fiction. It’s an eye-opening survey of what one celebrated technology visionary perceives as a feasible future for our species.

As Diamandis writes, “Abundance is a tale of good news. At its core, this book examines the hard facts, the science and engineering, the social trends and economic forces that are rapidly transforming our world. . . The point is this: When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.”

Diamandis is unusually well qualified to write this book. He is a Harvard-trained physician and an aeronautical engineer with a master’s degree from MIT. Ever since the age of 8, he has been preoccupied with space exploration. He has founded or co-founded a half-dozen businesses and organizations involved in that field and is widely credited with being the seminal figure in jump-starting the private space exploration business with the $10 million Ansari X Prize that led to the flight of SpaceShipOne.

In Abundance, co-written with Steven Kotler and published February 2012, Diamandis veers far from the course he set in space, settling down to earth to explore how humankind can leverage emerging technologies to confront its most pressing problems. Though Diamandis’ focus is squarely on the exponential growth in speed, capability, and spread of information processing technologies, he is not a gadget freak. He recognizes the social and political context in which technology is brought to light, although he may downplay the ferocity of humanity’s innate resistance to change. He writes about “game-changing” technologies, such as the “Lab-on-a-Chip . . . a portable, cell-phone-sized device [that] will allow doctors, nurses, and even patients themselves to take a sample of bodily fluid (such as urine, sputum, or a single drop of blood) and run dozens, if not hundreds, of diagnostics on the spot and in a manner of minutes.” He cites other potential breakthrough technologies now being developed by such luminaries as inventor Dean Kamen and biogeneticist Craig Venter.

For anyone but a Luddite, Abundance is exciting to read. Diamandis clearly believes that the technological advances he writes about hold promise of a much brighter future for humanity despite the anticipated growth in the world’s population to nine billion by 2050. (He even points to growing “in vitro” meat as one solution to the fast-rising demand for protein by ever more prosperous people.) For a science fiction fan such as myself, it’s difficult not to get starry-eyed.

However, the flaw in his line of reasoning is that, no matter how promising these new devices and processes might be, it’s not practical to assume that they’ll be quickly adopted around the world. That Lab-on-a-Chip sound wonderful? Great! But how many years will it take to put one billion copies of that device into the hands of the nurses running rural health clinics in Western Kenya and Uttar Pradesh and everywhere else in our wide, wide world? And how much will that cost? And will the spread of the device be rapid enough to prevent what other futurists see as the inevitable pandemics of new communicable diseases? Similar questions arise about nearly every one of the marvelous inventions cited in Abundance.

Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation and cofounder of Singularity University, laid out his vision of abundance in earth’s future in a brilliant TED2012 talk. The themes he introduced onstage at TED are explored in depth in this book.

To give some sense of the exalted circles in which Diamandis travels, here are some of the trustees of the X Prize Foundation: Larry Page, Elon Musk, James Cameron, Dean Kamen, Ratan Tata, Ray Kurzweil, Arianna Huffington, and Craig Venter, every one of whom would figure in anyone’s list of the brightest and most innovative thinkers and doers in the world.

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The sorry record of microcredit laid bare by an industry veteran

A review of Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor, by Hugh Sinclair

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

“Some microfinance is extremely beneficial to the poor, but it is not the miracle cure that its publicists would have you believe. Microfinance has been hijacked by profiteers, and we need to reclaim it for the poor. The problem is not with a few rogue operators, alas, but with systemic flaws that permeate the sector.”

Thus does Hugh Sinclair lay out the thesis he pursues in Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic. If you skip over this statement in the opening pages of the book, you could easily conclude that Sinclair can see no good at all in the $70 billion industry that has grown up under the impetus of Muhammad Yunus’ 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. After all, Sinclair writes — at least twice — that he wouldn’t invest a single dollar in microfinance today. Nonetheless, he insists that the “debate is not whether microfinance works, but how the inherent conflicts of interest can be managed.”

The systemic flaws Sinclair perceives are eye-opening:

  • A majority of the money loaned to poor people goes not to help them launch or sustain microbusinesses to supplement family income but rather for current consumption, sometimes to buy food during a time when there’s not enough money coming in, sometimes just to buy TV sets.”Estimates for consumption loans range from 50 percent to 90 percent of all microfinance loans,” depending on the study. As Sinclair points out, citing numerous sources, the proportion of entrepreneurs among the poor is no bigger than it is among the rich. It’s naive of us to expect otherwise.
  • The interest rates charged for microloans are, far too often, prohibitively high. Muhammad Yunus’ benchmark — 10 to 15 percent above the cost of money — is rarely observed. Though there are indeed many, mostly small, nonprofit MFIs (Microfinance Institutions, generally microloan lenders) that charge no more than 25 or 30 percent, the bigger institutions, and most of the for-profit banks in the industry, typically charge far more. In one notorious case, the effective interest rate runs as high as 195 percent, but there are many other instances in which the rate exceeds 100 percent.
  • The amounts of money loaned by MFIs are far too small to permit businesses to grow to a size where they may employ workers outside the family. In fact, to the extent that businesses remain family-run, they frequently employ even the youngest children, sometimes withdrawn from school to work in the business. However, there’s another side to this question, as Sinclair reveals in an exchange with one businesswoman: “[W]e asked her about her future plans for the business, and whether she thought it could be built up further and be a useful business for her children to take over. ‘You misunderstand me. I don’t do this job because I like it or want to grow it into a big business. I do it so my children will never have to do work like this.'”
  • In countries where local laws and a lack of government oversight give free rein to the MFIs, competition run wild among them has sometimes led to credit crises. In India’s Andhra Pradesh state, for example, “There were more microloans than poor people.” And in Nicaragua “total lending by MFIs was estimated at $420 million in 2008, in a country of about 5.5 million, not all of whom were poor (and MFIs generally don’t lend to children).” Microloan customers frequently borrowed from several of the country’s 19 MFIs — the nationwide average was four — often to be able to pay back loans to other MFIs. “One particularly ambitious client in Jalapa had managed to rack up $600,000 in micro-loans.” As Sinclair disclosed in a talk he gave in Berkeley a few weeks ago, Nicaragua was only the first of several countries where the microcredit bubble is likely to burst. Stay tuned, he said.
  • The profit motive appears to have become the central preoccupation of the microfinance funds, which function like private equity funds, gathering together investment dollars and placing them in selected MFIs. Even some of the biggest and most prestigious of these funds — including the Grameen Foundation (USA), Calvert Foundation, Kiva.org, and BlueOrchard (the world’s largest) — have been tainted by longstanding investments in some of the most egregiously exploitive MFIs, brushing aside mountains of evidence that their investments were helping victimize poor people in Nigeria, Mexico, and other countries.

Despite all this, there is NO documented evidence that microfinance has achieved any reduction at all in the level of poverty. As a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review stated, “In 1991, for example, Bangladesh ranked 136th on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index (a measure of societal well-being); 15 years later it ranked 137th.” And Sinclair writes, “In 2001, Nicaragua was the 106th poorest country in the world . . . Microfinance was almost unheard of in Nicaragua at this point, and there were no large microfinance funds throwing money around. By 2009, when the full Nicaraguan microfinance meltdown occurred, Nicaragua had slipped to 124th place.”

Hugh Sinclair is no cranky, slapdash journalist taking on a controversial subject for the sake of selling books. He is a ten-year veteran of the microfinance industry and has been involved as either an employee or a consultant in dozens of MFIs around the world and in several microfinance funds. He clearly knows whereof he writes, his citation of sources is extensive, and his publisher, Berrett-Koehler, is a highly respected source of books on business and current affairs.

Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic is an important book that should be must reading for anyone involved in international development.

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Books that helped me understand the world

During the last several years — mostly after I bought my first Kindle — I’ve spent a great deal of time reading, roughly half of it fiction, the other half non. I’ve gotten through hundreds of books and have reviewed the last 200 or so in this blog. It feels like a good time to cast a backwards look and identify those books that remain vivid in my memory — books that helped me understand the way the world works. Though most of the fiction I’ve read has been simply enjoyable, a few have touched me. None, though, have really nestled deep into memory and changed the way I view life and the world. I learn mostly from nonfiction. Whatever that says about my character — so be it.

Here, then, are the 20 nonfiction books that have impressed me the most in recent years. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Those I’ve reviewed are boldfaced and linked.

Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow. A shocking survey of the consequences of America’s so-called War on Drugs and the racism in our justice system

Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. A rigorous and balanced view of both top-down and bottoms-up development policies in the light of field research

Clark, Gregory, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. History as I like it: painted in broad swaths across the millennia, rejecting the myth that the “West” was destined to rule the world

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. A brilliantly original view of world history from a geographer’s perspective, ascribing variable levels of development primarily to environmental and geographical factors

Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The case against foreign aid and top-down development, by a former World Bank economist

Elkington, John, and Pamela Hartigan, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World. The liveliest and most insightful of several books on social entrepreneurs

Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The seminal book on understanding “six degrees of separation” and the way networks work

Harden, Blaine, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. A riveting tale of the North Korean gulag, spotlighting the reality of repression in the Kim family’s private kingdom

Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. One of the most troubling books I’ve ever read about the legacy of colonialism: the harrowing story of how the Belgian King destroyed the Congo and murdered millions of its people

Johnson, Chalmers, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. A scholar and former U.S. official demonstrates how the U.S. dominates the world through hundreds of military bases, undermining our nation’s reputation and robbing our society of the means to address pressing social problems

Larson, Erik, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. An eye-opening account of U.S. official anti-Semitism in FDR’s Administration that shackled our Ambassador in Berlin who witnessed the outrageous acts unfolding in Nazi Germany

Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. A revisionist view of Native American society in both North and South America, offering proof of huge populations and sophisticated civilizations in the present-day U.S. and in the Amazon Basin

Miller, Brian, and Mike Lapham, The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. A clear-eyed look beyond the bounds of Right-Wing ideology at the immeasurable benefits and services every “self-made man” has received from U.S. society

Mukherjee, Siddhartha, The Emperor of All Maladies. An oncologist’s brilliant history of cancer and of the medical profession’s slowly developing success in treating it

Polak, Paul, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. How a former psychiatrist, laboring face-to-face with $1-a-day farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries, helped 17 million families escape from poverty

Priest, Dana, and William M. Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. A Pulitzer-Award-winning Washington Post reporter and her researcher rip the cover from the enormous intelligence establishment built after 9-11

Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A science reporter’s captivating ten-year search to understand the consequences of a medical crime committed in an overtly racist era before the rise of medical ethics

Ward, Vicky, The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers. The most intimate and candid account of how Wall Street played the central role in launching the Great Recession

Wrong, Michela, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. A vivid account by a Financial Times reporter of how corruption holds sway even in one of Africa’s most developed economies 

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