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My Book and DVD Reviews

My Book and DVD Reviews

I have been creating hobby web pages since a long time ago, and keep at it even though the web itself has moved on. I’m still stuck in Web 1.0, and we have since moved on to Web 2.5 or something like that, and apps are going to kill the World Wide Web any day now anyway, but I still maintain my sites because I enjoy it. So one page I have kept maintaining has reviews of books and movies/TV shows; here it is for you to check out if you’d like:

Steve's Book and DVD Reviews

http://sbarrera.home.mindspring.com/bs/cult/reviews/BSBDRmain.html

 

Bowling Alone, Revisited

Bowling Alone, Revisited

This is the third in a series of reviews of books about the Third Turning which I am finally reading in the Fourth Turning (the first two are here and here). I am “revisiting” Bowling Alone not in the sense that I have read it before, but rather in that I would like to examine its thesis about the decay of civic life in the late twentieth century from the perspective of life nearly two decades into the twenty-first century.

Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam, published in the year 2000, is perhaps one of the best known popular works of sociology. Its basic thesis is that, in the second half of the twentieth century, the United States experienced a rapid decline in community and civic involvement. This thesis is supported by ample data on group participation, social habits and attitudes, all presented in a plethora of graphs and tables. In fact, the book is worth checking out just to see all the data laid out decade by decade, even if you care to interpret it differently.

A key concept in this thesis is that of “social capital,” defined as the value of social networks in providing “generalized reciprocity.” Social capital comes in two forms: “bonding” social capital tightly connects an in-group, whereas “bridging” social capital is a looser connection between people in different groups. There is even a Social Capital Index that the author calculates from a combination of different surveys.

As Putnam sees it, the loss of community in the country and the depletion of social capital is a serious problem. He describes a “fraying civil society” and laments “the erosion of America’s social connectedness and community.” When explaining how group membership rates don’t tell the whole story, because group attendance rates have worsened even more, he writes floridly that “decay has consumed the load-bearing beams of our civic infrastructure.” To uphold this grim description, he presents strong correlations between the Social Capital Index and other measures such as educational attainment, crime rates, and mortality.

In addition to defining social capital, and demonstrating its correlations, Putnam attempts to isolate what factors are associated with its decline at the end of the twentieth century. He does this with multiple regression analysis (explained in the Appendices – this study is very thorough and data driven), and basically concludes that the primary factor is generational change, accounting for half of the decline. Other important factors include television, changing work patterns, and sprawl – in a word, suburbia.

Now personally, as a proponent of Turnings Theory, I believe that generational change tells the whole story. In all of the graphs showing the decline in civic involvement over time, you see the same pattern, as described in the book on page 80: “modest growth in the first third of the [twentieth] century; rapid growth coming out of the Depression and World War II; a high plateau from the 1950s into the 1960s; and a sharp, sustained decline during the last third of the century.”

This pattern exactly tracks the life course of the Greatest Generation, the great civic generation which dominated the twentieth century. The rise and plateau of civic participation in the middle of that century happens in the First Turning era, when the Greatest Generation is in mid-life, the age range that is the peak of any generation’s influence. The decline occurs as that generation ages out of influence, and younger generations with other priorities and values take their place.

By the end of the twentieth century, with civic participation plummeting, to Putnam’s alarm, the United States has reached the Third Turning era. This is an inward-looking, individualist and opportunist social era. The Baby Boomers are now the ones in mid-life (and at the peak of influence) and Generation X is in young adulthood. A shift from a social order based on social capital to one based on financial capital suits both of these generations just fine.

Hence the transformation from a civic society to a market society, and the loss of a sense of stability. The loss of stability worries people, and there is concern over culture and morals even as the economy is booming. In this generational explanation, the factor of the rise of suburbia is a parallel development. The new suburban lifestyle accompanies the emergent generational constellation of cocooning families and prospering Bobos.

In the data presented in the book, there is a glimmer of hope that a turnaround could be forthcoming. In the section on trends in volunteering, an uptick is detected in the age group 25 and younger. That would be a sign that the Millennial generation, who were the teenagers of the 1990s, might be returning to a life of civic engagement.

This data was accumulated and analyzed in the year 2000. So now that 17 years have passed, has anything changed? I am not aware of any studies similar to Putnam’s that have been done since. But the social mood of the United States has grown darker, less confident, suggesting that the curve continues its downward trajectory.

One obvious development of the new era is the rise of social media, which has brought people together, in a sense. If membership in social organizations counted towards the Social Capital Index at the end of the twentieth century, why not membership in Facebook groups at the start of the twenty-first? Bowling Alone poses a similar question when examining the early Internet. However, online connections seem too superficial to qualify as generating social capital. There’s just not much effort involved in liking and sharing memes – the reason for the term slacktivism.

Another characteristic of our time is the partisan divide that splits political opinion into (at least) two distinct camps. This could be seen as an example of bonding social capital developing within groups, but with no bridging social capital to connect them. In fact, the author acknowledges in Bowling Alone that social capital is not necessarily a social good, as it can have the effect of uniting one group against another. For example, the recent protest marches in Charlottesville, Virginia were facilitated by social capital (people on each side of the protest coordinating and travelling together), and then violence ensued.

One interesting observation from Bowling Alone is that, by the end of the twentieth century, evangelical religion had overtaken mainstream religion in popularity. Evangelical religion is concerned with individual piety and proselytization, whereas the mainstream church works for social betterment. This trend is in keeping with the thesis of a decline in civic involvement.

But it also suggests how a new ideology could form in an individualistic age, and then come to drive political change as a new collectivist age approaches. The values that defined piety for the evangelists in the era of civic decline now provide the requirements for political inclusion in the new order. For the Red State these values are conservative religion and aggressive capitalism, and for the Blue State they are the progressive ideals championed by social justice warriors.

As long as the partisan divide remains strong, there won’t be a society-wide return to civic engagement. But once the conflicts are resolved, hopefully with as few Charlottesvilles as possible, it will be back to the First Turning in the social cycle. By then Millennials will be in mid-life, and maybe, through their influence, a sense of community will be restored. Then, if anyone is around to chart the data, those graphs might start going up again.

Thoughts on Living and Working in America

Thoughts on Living and Working in America

The latest audio book I have for driving in the car is the provocatively titled White Trash by Nancy Isenberg. It is very well written with knowledgeable and intelligent historical analysis. Basically it is about class structure in America and how the United States was never intended to be an egalitarian society. The founders were creating their own class-based society applying principles of Enlightenment philosophy, but certainly not abandoning the idea that some men were inherently better than others.

So over the centuries, different understandings of the nature of the underclass were prevalent. And different derogatory terms were used to denote them, from the phrase that title’s the book (originating in the nineteenth century) to today’s “deplorables” who elected the current President. Interestingly, an earlier President, Andrew Jackson, was also seen as a champion of the underprivileged who were despised by elite political society. His time’s equivalent of “deplorable” was “cracker.”

Another interesting fact of history is that in colonial times America was, for England, a dumping ground for undesirables. “Transportation” was an official policy to purge the homeland of criminals and debtors by sending them across the Atlantic. As the American colonies grew, each one took on its own unique character. The one where I currently reside, North Carolina, was considered an utter backwater, sandwiched between the more prosperous plantation colonies of Virginia and South Carolina. It was thought of as a “Lubberland” filled with worthless and indigent people.

At some point during the discussion of this time period, the book quotes a source declaring that, in contrast, the poor of Pennsylvania were hard working. As someone whose life currently straddles North Carolina and Pennsylvania (specifically the Philadelphia area, which was really all Pennsylvania was in the colonial era), it certainly feels like life up North is busier, more industrious than the South, though not necessarily to its benefit. I have lived in the South my entire adult life and enjoyed its laid back feel, not to mention affordable cost of living. And sometimes I have felt a bit like a “lubber.” Hey, what’s wrong with Plenty and a Warm Sun?

I recall once, way back in the 1990s, I flew to California for a job interview. Yes, I came this close (holds thumb and forefinger together) to moving to the Silicon Valley area. The hiring manager who interviewed me was middle-aged, with long, graying hair (think old hippie) and told me that he had moved from out East after his children were grown. He thought of the East Coast as having a quieter pace of living than the West Coast – it was ideal for raising a family, whereas out West was where you went to make money.

Just some thoughts on the long reach of the past and the different reputations that parts of the United States have. The South has not had a great reputation, but I have certainly enjoyed living here, and have found the Southern people to be decent and respectful as much as anywhere else. Honestly, everywhere you go people are the same, and there is always a vast underprivileged class.

Looking forward to finishing this book during my next long drive.

Book Review: Broke, USA

Book Review: Broke, USA

This review is my second of a book about the Third Turning that I finally got around to reading in the Fourth Turning (the first is here). This second book is Broke, USA, about what the author calls the poverty industry.

I’m actually reading it on my Kindle:

It is one of the first models of Kindle, and it is full of ebooks, which I will probably need the rest of my life to read. So assuming I don’t lose the device (which I almost did once at an airport) and that it doesn’t break down, this will be the only ereader I ever own.

Broke, USA chronicles the rise, from the 1980s to present times, of financial services targeting people with low incomes and poor credit. The venerable example of such a service would be that provided by a pawn shop: a small loan using some valuable as collateral. Other early examples are auto title loans (putting your car up as collateral) and rent to own (buy a TV for five times what it should cost because you can’t or won’t save money).

But this industry really took off in the 1980s when ambitious entrepreneurs discovered how to tap into credit markets to profit off of the yield spread available when making risky, high interest loans to individuals with poor credit. All they had to do was convince the big lenders to give them access to the money. And so new services were born, such as the payday loan, backed by the promise of future income (just show them your pay stubs). And the “early tax return,” more accurately termed a refund anticipation loan, a sure bet for the lender because there is close to a 100% chance that the IRS will deliver the refund. Easy money because someone can’t or won’t wait three weeks for their tax refund.

These services end up being very profitable, because even though each loan is small, there are so very many of them, and the actual interest rate earned (APR as they call it) is insanely high. Storefronts offering these services popped up all over the country throughout the 1990s, and the men who founded these businesses became millionaires. The easy money they made attracted the attention of the billionaires, and soon these companies were subsidiaries of larger, more established financial corporations.

When I started this book, and read about the pattern of low-income workers caught in a revolving door of interest payments and fees, my first thought was that this was a story about Generation X in the Third Turning – a generation and an era of short-term thinking and risk taking. But as it turns out all the living generations are involved in this saga. Many of the entrepreneurs who pioneered this businesses are Boomers, while the corporate moguls who bought them out are, as you may well imagine, from the Silent Generation. The poor customers in this industry come from all generations.

And many members of the Greatest Generation became victims of what has become known as “predatory lending.” In a particular heinous practice known as “equity stripping,” lenders identify someone with a small fixed income (such as a Social Security pension) but with a home that is all or mostly paid off (perhaps because they are elderly and retired). If they can be convinced to take out an equity loan on their house in not very favorable terms, the lender essentially extracts some of the value of the asset. If they are not very financially savvy, or even declining in mental faculties, they can be convinced over and over again to refinance, transferring their net worth to the lender in the process.

This brings us to the mother of all predatory lending practices, the subprime mortgage. This is, of course, a mortgage loan made to someone with a poor credit rating, structured to pay out more money to the mortgage-holder in compensation for the risk. The now familiar story is that there was an explosion in the origination of these kinds of loans in the 2000s, to the point where anyone who could sign their name could get one. The mortgages were sold on secondary markets, bundled together to dilute or disguise their riskiness, and blessed by irresponsible credit rating agencies. When the inevitable wave of defaults began, the world economy was almost destroyed.

The generation whose archetypal role in this story proves most true to form is the Boomer Generation. From their numbers come the activists and politicians who have campaigned against predatory lending, and tried to regulate it. But also from this generation are the lobbyists for the lenders, and the politicians on the other side of the aisle. The author paints a picture of iniquity, but these practices do have their advocates.

The argument is that they offer access to basic financial services not normally available to people with no credit. Considering the circumstances they are in, someone who does not have a credit card might find it in their best interest to borrow a little cash despite the high surcharge. That cost is actually less than that of a bounced check, or a utility reinstatement fee. They are simply making a choice that is rational for them. Home buyers with low incomes and low credit might not be able to purchase a house at all if there were not subprime mortgages available. Why should the government deny consumers these opportunities and the freedom to choose?

When the Third Turning ended with the global financial crisis, the generations in America played their parts to the hilt. The Boomers politicized the issues involved and created two opposing camps, but failed to avoid the crisis. The Gen-Xers were at mid-life when the bubble burst, and they bore the brunt of the damage. And the Millennials learned from observation to be cautious about incurring debt.

Curiously, Millennial risk-aversion doesn’t apply to student loan debt, a topic which the author reaches at the end of the book. Student loans are being described as predatory now, extending the poverty industry into the solidly middle-class. Considering this along with record wealth inequality, anemic economic growth, and a difficult job market for young adults, the story of broke America has certainly not come to an end.

A-Viking I Will Go (Watch)

A-Viking I Will Go (Watch)

A tough day at work has put me in the mood to watch Vikings (on Amazon Prime, of course), another in the modern vein of gritty and rough-edged TV series, covering a period mostly neglected in historical drama – the Dark Ages in Europe. As you may imagine, there is a lot of warfare on the show, just what I need to heat up my blood.

One scene from an episode I’ve already watched has a Norse warband defeating a less disciplined English force, which ties into a book I recently listened to – War by Sebastian Unger, a reporter embedded with a platoon of airborne infantry in Afghanistan. In the latter case, as well, the superior training and discipline of U.S. forces allows them to prevail against a seemingly endless supply of hapless Taliban fighters, who are mostly teenage boys with almost no warfighting skills (but armed with deadly weapons and therefore a serious threat).

So across the ages, this simple military principle holds – discipline and training are the key to success in battles, whether fought with bow and arrow, spear and sword, or with rifle, mortar and grenade. But also consider that England is ruled by the English still, and the Taliban remains a force in Afghanistan. So winning battles is not necessarily going to achieve one’s war aims in the long run.

That’s enough thinking for now I am going to watch TV.

Don’t Make Me into a Pod-Person!

Don’t Make Me into a Pod-Person!

One of my many preoccupations is re-reading old sci-fi books from a modest collection I have. Just because it was there I picked up this one by Fritz Leiber:

This turns out to be a short novel where some guy somewhere in the 20th century discovers that he is the only actually sentient human in a world where everyone else is robotically going through the motions of life. Whenever I encounter this theme, as in The Stepford Wives, or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (they are plant-clone beings who act like robots), I assume I am reading a parable about the human yearning to break free from the shackles of social conformity. After all, science fiction has replaced the old mythmaking as our collective way of exploring and expressing the human psyche.

The fear of being just another pod-person is understandable. We easily fall into patterns, and time sweeps us all too speedily down the course of our lives. We don’t want to look back and feel that life has passed us by, hence the constant rush to have new, authentic experiences.

Scientists call our patterns “behavioral conditioning,” the biological equivalent of programming, and there is even an experiment in which neuroscientists can predict our decisions before we make them (or are aware that we have made them), putting the whole notion of free will into question. But fear not – deep within us is the wellspring of creativity, the true source of freedom, which lets us overcome our conditioning. It requires effort and awareness, but it can be done. Because we are not actually robots, we just act like them a lot of the time.

Back to the book; another fun thing about it is that it has a cigarette ad in the middle of it:

It’s a 1972 edition, and I guess that was a thing then. Advertisers: the ultimate puppet-masters!

I will end this post with a link to a bizarre and brilliant song along the same theme. The lyrics are on the same page as the video to help you follow along.

Book Review: On Paradise Drive

Book Review: On Paradise Drive

I have a long reading list of books, many of which I purchased years ago, and have had sitting on my bookshelf ever since. So I finally got around to reading David Brooks’ “On Paradise Drive” , which is a follow-up to “Bobos In Paradise”. This book (the follow-up) was published in 2004 (!). Yes, it’s 8 years into the Fourth Turning and I’m finally reading this book from the Third Turning.

On Paradise Drive

It was a quick and enjoyable read. Brooks is snarky and he overgeneralizes about society, both of which sins he freely confesses. As I read “On Paradise Drive” I found myself thinking that he is just repeating stereotypes, there isn’t much depth here, and then I would encounter a sentence that exactly described my life experience. For example, in contrast to the muscular SUV set, intellectuals “putter around in their low-slung Japanese sedans with a clutter of books and magazines on the backseat…” Ooh, he’s on to me.

Brooks mainly discusses life in the suburban sprawl of the United States, which reached unprecedented levels in the early 2000s. He’s writing during the housing boom, before there was much talk of the declining middle class, and celebrating the diversity of subcultures spread like a patchwork across the American landscape. If you’ve read “Bobos in Paradise,” you recall that his term means “Bo-hemian Bo-urgeoisie” – referring to the enfolding of hip, counterculture life into mainstream middle America. A quote from this latest work: “Nobody in this decentralized, fluid social structure knows who is mainstream and who is alternate, who is elite and who is populist.” What he’s describing is the social era that in Turnings theory we call the Unraveling.

Another quote: “Ours is not a social structure conducive to revolution, domestic warfare, and conflict. The United States is not on the verge of an incipient civil war or a social explosion. If you wanted to march against the ruling elite, where exactly would you do it?”
But now, in 2017, the book is looking dated. The diversity of subcultures has coalesced into two pretty definite groups, battling fiercely in government and media over whose values agenda will be instituted. Maybe three groups, if you think about the Sanders-Clinton split and all the non-voters of last year’s election. The conflict underway is about whose version of paradise will be considered mainstream in the years to come.

So this book gets to be put on the pile of “books that describe a now defunct social era.” Which isn’t saying that it’s a bad work, just that it’s been overtaken by history. I’d better get through my other books in the pile ASAP.