Can American Capitalism Survive? by Steven Pearlstein

I know. I know. How could a book published this year focused on the current state of the US be any good? How could it be anything but pretension or, worse, the meticulously organized confusion of shell-shocked adults wondering how they could have been so very wrong? Skepticism would be warranted. Perhaps it is a testament to my optimism (which, I admit, often seems indefinitely AWOL) that I have skimmed so many such books’ jackets, but it was all worth it because it led me, eventually, to this book: Can American Capitalism Survive? by Steven Pearlstein.

Can American Capitalism Survive? is no personal diary. It is not a harried attempt to piece together comprehension of a world gone mad. It is also not click-bait-y as its title seems to intimate. Can American Capitalism Survive? is a thorough, rigorous analysis of the evolution of America’s economy over the past several decades leading up to, and illuminating, the country we see and inhabit today. Pearlstein’s skill and experience as a business and economics reporter inform the book’s masterfully written and organized prose. He draws on philosophy, economics, history, social science, and political science to support his analysis and back his conclusions as he explores the dynamics and decisions that led us to our current economy and the ideas, solutions, and rhetoric that complicate and intensify our relationship to it. In a true mark of his skill as a writer, he makes a nuanced topic accessible and comprehensible to his reader.

Furthermore, Pearlstein is no self-appreciating intellectual nor an ideologue. He is a capitalist, sure, but his objective, stated in the book’s introduction, is not to absolutely and unyieldingly convert opinions but to provoke thought, to engage readers “to think about American capitalism in a new way…to consider it from a different angle.” Pearlstein wants us to read the book and, instead of just reacting or absorbing as we are wont to do these days, to contemplate the ideas he presents and hold them up against the lives we live and see if we can’t find some new understanding and maybe even a better way forward.

In a time when diluting ideas and opinions into short character strings and photo captions is the normal form of communication, when “discussion” and “firing an angry text off” or “posting a passive-aggressive to outright-aggressive meme” are all in essence seen as the same thing, this book’s objective may seem lofty. To be fair, some of you may still be disinclined to read it, skeptical that, like so much of our discourse, it will be more of an individual preaching to his particular crowd. Let me put that concern to rest.

As somebody who thinks that we as a country have a lot of growing to do, this book challenged me in ways I had not expected. First, and perhaps most obviously, this book challenged me intellectually because I do not have a background in economics. Pearlstein does not in any way dumb down the economic ideas central to his analysis of our capitalist society. Instead, he has the skill to illuminate dynamics like the intentionally confusing practices of Wall Street financiers and nuanced public repercussions. Pearlstein incorporates data and plots, statistical tools and even some light jargon into his work without losing the thread of the narrative or marring its clarity. In doing so, he challenges the reader to pay attention and think, which is crucial. Our economy and how it influences our lives and decisions and its own future relies on us understanding these complex ideas, (ideas, incidentally, that couldn’t really be summed up in a Tweet or a caption).

Secondly, this book challenged me to re-consider my understanding and my relationship to the economy. Can American Capitalism Survive? looks at capitalism today as it relates to where we grow up, what education we receive, what economic backgrounds we come from, our ideas on fairness and morality, and our assumptions about what we deserve from each other and our economy. All of this relates to each of us as individuals and as a community, and I found myself pausing frequently to consider the words I had just read.

Most surprisingly, this book made me re-examine desire for wealth and success and my relationship to the concept of greed. Theoretically, it may be easy to say that we want what’s best for the most people, but what does that really mean? What does that really involve? And when it comes to personal decisions, what do we really want and value?

I went into this book thinking I would learn something about how we arrived at the current economic state, one where large corporations are easily seen as bad and politicians really don’t seem all that trustworthy. I came out with a much broader understanding of the recent arc of American economics and with a greater comprehension of the relationship between an individual, a community, and the economy. Part of acquiring that involved the self-reflection and thought this book stimulated.

I know it is easy to recommend (and to dismiss recommendations) for anything these days because everyone has an opinion and is touting it. However, I sincerely, 1000%, pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top-follow-this recommend you read this book. It will widen your perspective, and you will learn a lot. Most of us to some degree know that the economy has been central to creating our present state of frustration and polarization. This book provides a framework for each of us to start thinking about, understanding, and eventually tackling this situation.

Also, it’s just a good, fun, engaging read. The man knows how to write (but then, he did win a Pulitzer).

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the Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

“What is it like, we wonder at each meeting, in shared meals and secrets and silences, with each touch and glance, to be you?”
~ p.29

I had not been reading the Soul of an Octopus long when I began to slip between its words into another book, floating just beneath the surface, exploring not the secret lives of octopuses but of humans from a distinctly not-human lens. It was then that I realized this book was going to be so much more than a romp through octopus-land.

Of course, the book, by its own declaration, involves much octopus-romping, great, fun octopus-romping. I learned so much about the mysterious, dazzling, fantastical eight-armed alien-wizard-shape-shifters of the oceans. I’ve never been terribly fascinated with octopuses and certainly have never wished to touch one if I met one, but this book has challenged all of that. Befriending an octopus suddenly seems intriguing, adventurous, and possibly worth the risks. That’s partly thanks to the octopus, as a collective set of creatures, for being awe-inspiring and awfully good subject material. That’s also largely thanks to Sy Montgomery, our intrepid author, for being good at writing. Through her beautiful use of language and personable narration, Montgomery takes us by the hand on a trip to the New England Aquarium and Beyond. She vividly portrays the personalities and quirks, the decisions and actions of the octopuses she meets and slips biological trivia in amongst the romping. Thus, the ordinarily dry and vibe-killing business of factual information kills no vibes. Cleverly, Montgomery structures the narrative around meeting and getting to know individual octopuses and parallels the octopuses’ arcs with the lives of the people she meets in the process. Thus, for all of the barriers separating us from octopuses (they live in water; we don’t. they have eight arms; we don’t. they have dexterous suckers; we don’t.), entering their world in the Soul of an Octopus feels easy, natural.

For me, The most fascinating, eye-opening moments were when my view as a human and as a creature on this planet were expanded simply from thinking about humans and human life from the perspective of the non-human world.

However, if all you want is a fun, engaging read to pass the nights, the Soul of an Octopus delivers; there’s adventure, emotion, humor, the mysterious and unexpected. If animals or marine biology are your thing, this book is no let-down. If you’re like me, and you enjoy thinking about everything, turning it inside out and backwards just to see what you can glean from it, then, too, this book will be a joy to read.

The octopus the Myth has served as the basis for so many creators of fantasy and science fiction creatures throughout the years. The octopus the Cephalopod, observant inhabitant of the oceans of the Earth, is just as fantastical but, amazingly, marvelously, excitingly, real. So go ahead. Add the Soul of an Octopus to your list, even if you’ll only get to it three years later (like I did 🙂 ).

The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams

This book. THIS BOOK. Everyone needs to read it. It’s amazing. Just actually amazing. This book speaks to the soul.

The Book of Joy, written by Douglas Abrams as a record of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, explores joy, the cultivation of joy, and the relationship between joy and suffering. I picked it up at the recommendation of one of my professors. As someone who has struggled with happiness, I found this book really resonated with me. There was so much that I read and went “yup, I know how that feels” or “yeah, that roughly sketches a pattern that occurred in my life.” And wonderfully, I related to their suggestions for ways forward, their approaches to generating positivity in a too-often negative world.

I also appreciated that The Book of Joy is not pretentious, as perhaps one might be inclined to fear. As the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu say through Abrams in the prologue, “You don’t need to believe us. Indeed, nothing we say should be taken as an article of faith. We are sharing what two friends, from very different worlds, have witnessed and learned in our long lives.” The Book of Joy does not aspire to tell you how to think or live; it does not claim to have all the answers. It wouldn’t translate very well to an inspirational TED Talk or smartly written blog post or clever YouTube video about 10 Ways You Can Increase Your Happiness TODAY! Rather, The Book of Joy invites you to think for yourself and consider the ideas presented and hopefully to find a better way forward yourself.

So please read this book. But don’t just read it. Read it and contemplate it. Take your time with it. Marvel in it. Slow yourself down with it. It won’t entertain you like the internet will. It won’t kindle passion, anger like the news can. You won’t feel a battle cry erupt within your throat.

But you will find in this book the seeds of a better you, a happier you, a more joyful you. And the seeds of a better us, all of us. The seeds of a better humanity through better humans. The seeds of a more joyful humanity through more joyful humans.

The only remaining question will be what you want: joy or suffering.

 

 

 

the Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani

So I picked this book up because it had this ultra dramatic title. The Wisdom of Whores. Wow. Okay. So what do the whores have to say?

Use condoms. And don’t share needles. Apparently.

Elizabeth Pisani, journalist-turned-epidemiologist author, has lived in the US, England, Kenya, and the Philippines. She has chatted up sex workers and ministers of health and junkies and non-junkies who do drugs sometimes for funsies. She has a PhD in infectious disease epidemiology.

And she’s written this remarkable book. An engaging, intelligent, eloquent non-fiction discussion of HIV, its prevention, treatment, and politics.

This book is actually, honestly a page-turner; I read all 325 pages in a matter of 5 days. Four and a half really, but that’s only because I got drowsy on day four. It was late.

Anyway.

I love this book because it exists squarely at the intersection of story-telling and science. The text is stuffed full of statistics, enumerated references to studies, and scientific data collection and analysis processes, but it’s so readable. It’s personable. Pisani injects humor and levity without losing substance or credibility. She brings to life the people, places, and experiences that shaped her understanding of the impact of HIV on real people. She writes with personality and a dash of irreverence, with thoughtfulness and intellect.

If you’re considering what to read next (or have a list of books to which you add recommendations), I would like to place this book, figuratively speaking, into your open hands. It is not only a thorough, meaningful look into the HIV epidemic but also an insightful study of the many ways in which science, politics, and belief systems intersect and complicate our lives. And how the last two often hinder good from being done.

I enjoyed reading this book immensely because it read with the ease of a good story, but I also loved this book because I came out more knowledgeable on a subject that is often obscured by people’s prejudices and fears. Worth your time.

 

 

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

I remember once learning about hunger and homelessness and poverty. I was young then, too young to really know what it all means but just young enough to learn through compassion rather than fact, to remember the meaning without having to argue about its validity. The program that exposed me to these topics is now sadly discontinued but suffice it to say it opened my eyes and left a lasting impact on me.

Recently, I read a book that reminded me of many of the lessons I learned that long while ago. It reminded me that poverty hides in plain sight and that those who live in its clutches do not deserve it any more than you or I. Not that I ever thought that those who are poor deserve to be poor, that they are somehow lesser, but the glitzy world of those quite safely afloat tells a very seductive lie: that perhaps that is merely the way things are, that people will be poor, that we’re doing the best we can.

A rather pathetic excuse, don’t you think? Somewhere in the range of “the dog ate my homework” and “I was late because there was traffic (like there is every morning).”

I’ve never believed that a problem only has one solution, which might seem surprising if you had a cursory acquaintance with my background and absolutely not surprising if you truly understood my background. Life, in a sense, is a problem, not in the sense of something frustrating and bothersome (though sometimes it is that) but in the sense of being a puzzle, a dynamic, intricate, complex puzzle with rules and no rules simultaneously. Life is a conceptual problem, and no correct answer exists to how it must be lived. This, of course, also means that a solution obtained may not be the best one and to convince yourself otherwise despite knowing the truth is merely delusional at best, cold-hearted and selfish at worst.

To believe that the current solution to poverty, which ultimately underlies the pressing problems of hunger and homelessness, despite the living, breathing human proof otherwise is a self-conceit of damnable proportion. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich explores the issue of low-wage living in the United States and its relative invisibility to those living a comparatively to seriously and strikingly affluent lifestyle. While the book is by no means an exhaustive source on the shortcomings and failures of modern society in addressing and supporting those living at the bottom of the income spectrum, it is a wake-up call. Nickel and Dimed draws attention to the many challenges facing those living on low wages, in poverty even if their situation is not officially recognized as such.

I will admit, when I first started reading Nickel and Dimed, I felt a little annoyed with the author. She seemed incredibly self-centered and more focused on bemoaning the loss of her upper-middle lifestyle than on digging into the implications of the lives and conditions she saw around her as she dove into her experiment to mimic and stay afloat in a low-wage lifestyle. To her credit, she grew a lot as the protagonist of her little story, but more importantly, as the book, and her experiment, progressed, she did, in fact, dig into the implications of her experiences, interactions, and observations. The research and background she put into supplementing her own experiment were thorough and meticulous. I also realized that her seeming self-absorption was not a fault in her but rather a reflection of the shocks someone who is in no way, and likely never has been, familiar with a life of poverty may experience as she or he begins to grasp exactly what that new, unsavory lifestyle entails.

In essence, Nickel and Dimed reads like a personal narrative: the experiences of author Barbara Ehrenreich as she undergoes the experiment of trying to maintain a place of residence and feed herself via low-wage work. The book is well-written and well-paced, and reading it entirely is time well-spent. Through description of personal experiences, Ehrenreich reveals the many challenges facing an individual attempting to stay afloat in the lowest sector of the income scale. It is through these moments also that she conveys the deep contrast in the accepted boundaries and limitations of human endurance and behavior between those living the low-wage lifestyle and those living more comfortably than that. Low-wage workers work harder and often at far greater physical and emotional expense to receive far less than those comfortably in the middle class and above. Via footnotes, Ehrenreich details research and supporting information that provides context, a setting and a scope, for the situations she encounters, demonstrating that hers is not the story of an upper middle class woman failing to adjust to a less privileged lifestyle but of a human paralleling the lifestyle of the many people who experience such steep obstacles to mobility and survival every day. Nickel and Dimed’s greatest triumph is in providing a foothold for an empathetic understanding of the situation rather than a merely factual one, in helping the reader learn by compassion rather than by easily-dismissible and –forgotten data.