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Friday, October 24, 2003

Book Reviews


Book Reviews from Tom Cleland

I recently had a chance to read a number of political and economics books. Here are my reviews:

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, by Al Franken

This is the funniest political book I’ve ever read. Even some of the chapter titles are funny, like "Who Created the Tone?", "Did the Tone Change?", "Why Did Anyone Think It Would Change?", and "I Grow Discouraged About the Tone".

He gives example after example of Republican lies, including a deceptive "Budget Outlays" table, along with a corrected version. The book is pretty well footnoted (and endnoted, though he makes fun of endnotes). I spot-checked one of the book’s claims using the Internet, about Bill O’Reilly falsely claiming to win two Peabody Awards, and it checked out ok.

The book has some serious sections dealing with 9/11 and the memorial service for Senator Wellstone, which I feel Franken summarized very thoughtfully.

One of my favorite chapters is "Loving America the Al Franken Way", which is a great response to those who challenge the patriotism of liberals.

Stupid White Men, by Michael Moore

While Franken makes a good case that Democrats are better than Republicans, Moore makes a good case that Greens are better than Democrats. While I found this book not quite as funny, and somewhat coarser, it was still very amusing. I didn’t know Moore was elected to the school board while he was still in high school.

Moore details illegalities in the 2000 Florida presidential recount. Along with recent evidence showing no connection between Iraq and uranium in Niger, Moore’s remarks at the Academy Awards about President Bush appear to be justified.

As for Clinton, he writes: "Bill Clinton waited until the final days of his presidency to sign a raft of presidential decrees and regulations, many of which promised to improve our environment and create safer working conditions. It was the ultimate cynical move. Wait till the last 48 hours of your term to do the right thing, so that everyone will look back and think, ‘now he was a good president.’ But Clinton knew these last-minute orders would all fall under the hand of the new administration coming to power. He knew none of these orders would stand. It was all about image."

Crashing the Party, by Ralph Nader

This book, which I read last year, is Nader’s story of the 2000 campaign. Of particular interest is Appendix D, which lists 20 problems with the Clinton-Gore administration, such as ending the federal safety net, siding with big business on job-losing trade agreements like NAFTA, expansion of corporate welfare, approval of giant mergers, and on and on.

As we look ahead to the 2004 campaign, I was hopeful that Democrats might nominate a candidate that Greens could vote for. So far I’ve been disappointed with Howard Dean’s support of NAFTA and lack of support for the Kyoto protocol. Wesley Clark is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Crisis Group. Dennis Kucinich sounds good on the issues, but he is faltering in the polls, perhaps because of his campaign manager, Danny Sheehan.

Democrats should be courting us, considering that we have the proven power to swing elections. To the best of my knowledge, this has not happened yet. Most likely my conscience will not allow me to vote Democratic, but if Democrats pass Instant Runoff Voting, I may select a Democratic candidate as my second choice.

The Party’s Over, by Richard Heinberg

Of all the books listed here, this one could be the most important. Using an objective, dispassionate writing style, Richard Heinberg lays out the scientific, historical, and political facts about fossil fuels, and warns us that world oil supplies will probably begin to diminish within the next ten years.

As a result, we can expect the price of just about everything to increase steadily and indefinitely, because we rely on oil for so much. By 2150, life in many ways may be much like it was in 1850, only with more people. We should be using the remaining oil to build more windmills so our children can at least have electricity, but market forces are not reacting in time.

The book explains how fuel cells can store energy, but they can’t produce it. It talks about how trees in Europe became scarce in the Middle Ages, until coal was adopted, and how nitrogen fertilizers are made from natural gas, allowing agribusiness to maximize crop yields in farmlands that are already cleared to capacity worldwide. It is reasonable to expect that 2 out of 3 people simply won’t survive.

So as people don’t get too discouraged, Heinberg offers ways that we can navigate the decline, as a society, or if that doesn’t work, as individuals. Conservation, localized economies, and investing in things that don’t require fossil fuels are all ways to ease the transition and cushion the impact.

In my 2002 campaign for state senate, I emphasized global warming. While recent satellite photos of the Arctic show pronounced melting, I now wonder if fossil fuel supplies will run out before global warming becomes a serious threat to most people.

The Grand Chessboard, by Zbigniew Brzezinski

Unlike my chess books, this book is not about chess, despite its title, but about geopolitics. I read this book not because I agree with it, but because I wanted to understand the motives and strategy of the opposition. The author, who was an advisor to both Democratic and Republican administrations, sees the Eurasian continent as a chessboard, with the critical center squares being countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps our leaders have anticipated the impending oil shortages for some time now. "The world’s energy consumption is bound to vastly increase over the next two or three decades," he writes. "…The Eurasian Balkans are infinitely more important as an economic prize: an enormous concentration of natural gas and oil reserves is located in the region…"

Published four years before 9/11, the book contains this ominous passage: "Moreover, as America becomes an increasingly multicultural society, it may find it more difficult to fashion a consensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstances of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat."

Gold Wars, by Ferdinand Lips

This book contains an interesting perspective of our economy, rebutting some of the things I learned years ago in my college economics class. Paul A. Samuelson, the author of my college text, claimed that it was necessary to leave the gold standard in order to get us out of the Great Depression. Lips, the author of this book, on the other hand, says that nations departed from the gold standard to finance World War I, and then never went back, resulting in inflation in the 1920s and the stock market crash of 1929, which led us INTO the Great Depression.

To me, it seems logical that gold would be a more accurate long-term store of value, because its rate of supply growth is limited, whereas there is no limit to the amount of paper money that can be printed. The book lists historical examples of failed fiat currencies, and claims that today’s gold prices are kept artificially low by central banks, bullion dealers, and the like.

Bankruptcy 1995, by Harrie E. Figgie, Jr. with Gerald J. Swanson

Obviously there was no bankruptcy in 1995. One good thing I can say about Clinton is that deficit spending, at least officially, was reduced under his watch. But now with the war and the tax cut for the rich, the 8 trillion dollar national debt curve is near vertical again, and the potential for trouble is still there.

This book describes how an economic collapse might play out, given our large budget, trade, and personal debt levels. Under one scenario, the government and economy can’t operate because no one wants to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, bills, and notes. Under another scenario, the government prints too much money, and we get hyperinflation, like the German Weimar Republic of the 1920s, where a person had to haul a wheelbarrow full of money just to buy a loaf of bread.

I think its interesting that gold and oil prices tend to move together. Perhaps rising fuel prices will be the catalyst that triggers the collapse of precarious derivatives funds in the stock market, perhaps leading to a default on the national debt, a weaker dollar, and ensuing economic calamity.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki

In this book, Kiyosaki explains how his biological dad, intelligent and well-educated, with a well-paying job, was actually worse off financially than his friend’s dad, who wisely invested in money making assets, and stayed out of the rat race.

The author claims that the common wisdom of "go to school, get good grades, and find a safe, secure job" will not lead to financial independence. He also thinks that home ownership can be a liability if there is a negative cash flow associated with it.

Though I haven’t read it, Kiyosaki’s latest book, "Prophecy", predicts some sort of economic collapse.

Creating Wealth by Robert G. Allen

This book, published back in the 1980s, was in Kiyosaki’s suggested reading list. He says the surest way to financial independence is to buy modestly-priced homes with the smallest possible down payment, and then rent the homes out.

While I’m sure this strategy has worked successfully for many people, and housing is something people need in both good and bad economic times, I wonder how increasing fuel prices will affect this market.

Police Unbound, by Tony Bouza

I read this book a year or two ago. Tony Bouza was a police officer who worked his way up through the ranks in New York City, and then became police chief here in Minneapolis for a number of years. I campaigned for another candidate when he ran for governor in 1994, but I thought his book was insightful and interesting. I had a chance to meet him at the inaugural ball for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback.

He is real frank about issues of race and law enforcement, and points out how police corruption can occur and ways to prevent it. The most interesting suggestion I gleaned from the book is that it’s good to have some police just to keep an eye on other police, a sort of check and balance approach.

Well, that’s all for now. Some of these books I found on the following web site, which I now have bookmarked in my Internet browser:


While I still find some of its claims hard to believe, I’m turning to it increasingly as my primary news source.

Tom Cleland