I'm slow at reading.

Several weeks ago, I started reading the book Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (2006) by Morris Berman. [See his blog here.] I'm still not done with it. I admit that I don't read very much, but this is ridiculous.

The thing is, I started reading the book because I was waiting at a friend's place while a few people finished up a little work before we headed down to the park. I thought the title was intriguing as well as the kind of politically provocative that only liberal fire-starters can conjure up. I came to the conclusion long ago that the good ol' conservatives don't write books appealing to emotion (read: popular books) because their thoughts and intents are grounded in reason. Thomas Sowell does a pretty damn good job of explaining that phenomenon. Ann Coulter might be an exception.

I, unlike most of the so-called "political" people I have known, like to inform myself about the tactics and ammunition of the other side. I haven't yet met a Democrat whose argument is based on hard numbers (not anecdotal statistics) or a Republican who tugs at your heart. I knew what was coming in this book, but I wanted to taste it myself. What I got was liberal meat and potatoes instead of the sugar-coated, almond-encrusted altruistic BS that I thought I was taking in. This stuff had substance, numerical substance, and somehow argues strongly against Replublican and consequently capitalistic ways. Maybe every liberal knows this stuff, but just forgets to say it, but I have never heard this stuff. If they want to win the votes of, well... people like me, the Democrats need to let Morris Berman speak for the party.

I still can't believe that I was so easily swayed from the pure beauty of capitalism, but it has happened! Before the halfway point of the book I could already name three major reasons how free trade fails: (1) "Speculative capital" (i.e. capital seeking gains solely on currency fluctuations) moves into promising countries and out of them as they become less promising, magnifying the effects of unstable economy and sucking money out of already poor countries. (2) Giant industries (e.g. investment banking, securities traders, equity research firms) earn their profit mainly by manipulating money, not by producing any sort of real good or service (i.e. one that directly increases someone's quality of life) for use in our economy. And (3), from a more philosophical standpoint, relying on competition to make a living predisposes us to competition in other aspects of our lives. In a capitalist system, every person does what he or she wants, disregarding the others; even if Adam Smith was right that that is still good for the community, every person is still disregarding others. What kind of community is that?

Berman comments that (1) became a problem after the effective cancellation in 1971 of the Bretton Woods Agreement (1944) in the form of the dismantling of the gold standard of the dollar. His arguments are sound. Then, (2) is possibly subjective since financial markets do provide value to a society in the form of facilitating information and money transfer between goods/service-producing elements of the economy, but no one knows how much value really is there. The fact remains that this system helps the rich get richer, which would not be a problem if money did not equate to political power in a "democracy" such as the U.S. And (3) is completely an opinion, but an opinion I happen to agree with after reading Bermans included statistics.

It is quite obvious even at the beginning of the book, that the title Dark Ages America (which follows Berman's The Twilight of American Culture, 2001 ) refers to the handful of undeniable similarities between modern America and Rome just before the fall. While these two are certainly not the same animal, perhaps we can see the distant relation. I don't know if living in Austria for four months has made me a socialist, but I do know that talking to all sorts of people about world news and cultures hasn't hurt the cause at all.

This month, just one kilometer from my apartment in Vienna, is a concert festival lasting three days. Over three million people attended last year. And it's all free. The annual Vienna Symphony performance in the park is also free. Perhaps I can tolerate government financial inefficiencies when all I can see is a safe, clean city with a public transportation system to die for, and all the free events I can handle.

I just wish there was a Skyline Chili and monday night Fed Hill Runners.


Theresa said...

From my experiences, sadly, most of the democrats who actually know what they're talking about work in other arenas outside of politics because they realize that they can do more good that way (my econ professor from last quarter who was a former economic advisor for a number of high-powered politcians is a good example).

And trust me, there are plenty of republicans out there who try to tug at the heart strings just to get people to vote for them just like a lot of democrats do - take the 2004 presidential election for instance when the entire debate in Ohio focused on the gay marriage issue and how our morals, children and lives in general were being threatened by this "travesty." That whole dog and pony show was one of the most ridiculous things I've ever seen (well, just ahead of Howard Dean making a damn fool of himself on the campaign trail and basically screwing himself out of the Dem nomination).

To me, both parties are to blame for how shitty things are in America right now. I used to love politics...used to truly believe that you could make a difference through government. After all of my experiences and meeting these so-called representatives of the people, I don't believe it anymore. They're a bunch of talking heads who were trained how to deflect questions as much as possible (trust me...I've trained many...and they're good at it...really good at it).

We're entirely too polarized to actually make this country any better. Give me someone, anyone who is smart and stands for something more than themselves or what their parties dictate to them. Give me someone who can actually make some kind of real change without dividing this country more than it already is. I don't care if you're a republican, a democrat or an alien. Just give me something to believe in again.

fbg said...

Yeah, Theresa, you are right. I'm am relatively new at this whole "thinking" thing, so I don't always catch all of the nuances of, say, Republican heart-string-tugging.

In my defense, I think we can agree that I probably didn't realize they were aiming at my heart, seeing as that they were so far off the mark. When a democrat tells me I need to help feed the homeless, I feel my heart pang a bit before considering how best to help the less fortunate in our country, which usually doesn't include some ill-planned democratic suggestion. However, when a republican plays Cupid by crying "travesty," as you said, about gay marriage, abortion, immigration, or "A-rabs" controlling all of the oil, I just think "You're a moron. Please just worry about the economy; that's the only thing you can do (but try not to think about invading countries ot get oil)."

I don't think polarity is a problem, but I don't really have a reason for that. And yes, the solution either way is to have smart people running the country. Morris Berman also said that the most reasonable president at least since the war was Jimmy Carter, and look at his reputation, even today. Maybe he was smart, but nobody listened hard enough to hear the nuances of good leadership. People like presidents who say one sentence well.

Is Obama really the Messiah? Has he come to save us, or is being well-spoken not equal to being a smart person. The world may never know...