Sometimes the most important books are almost ignored. Here are some with important news, most or which attracted no interest, others of which changed the world.
The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, is a surprising book. It presents lots of evidence that greater equality makes for stronger societies. The real surprise is that so many good things come about with greater equality, things that would seem to have no relationship to equality.
Take obesity, for example. Greater equality means less obesity. Or teenage births, which fall with greater equality. Then there are educational performance, mental health, drug use. All these are favorably affected by improved equality.
These positive relationships are not obvious at all, and in some cases seem to defy reason. But they do exist, and are largely ignored. Who would vote for the party that seeks less equality, when increasing equality has all of these good effects?
Water has become increasingly scarce in the Southwest over these past five years, and The West Without Water, by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, should have been required reading for every California politician, scientist, and concerned citizen. What the authors teach us is that the past couple of centuries have been an anomaly, an unusually wet period against a background of semi-desert.
California has experienced five years of drought, drying up the reservoirs and shutting off much of the water for the state’s agricultural products. California’s Central Valley has given the country much of the food we eat. If we lose very much of the water we have relied on, we can expect only undesirable consequences.
We should remember too that state population is 40 times what it was a century ago, and is greater than that of Canada. If dry California is what we can expect, then we will have to find ways to reuse all water. Agriculture must become more efficient, which is difficult because low water usage tends to build salinity in the soil.
Another danger is the habit of presuming that one wet winter will return us to the good old days, instead of inspiring us to change our ways.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction explains what it means to be in the midst of the next Great Extinction, the fifth having occurred fifty million years ago. So it’s not a common or unimportant thing. It’s a big deal.
The loss of species is alarming, and Kolbert lead us through several and discusses what they could mean.
I think the current extinction is being created by climate change. That is, by humans, who have altered the climate so radically that mass extinctions are inevitable. As the warming trend moves northward, some species will not be able to tolerate the new warmth, and will not be able to move north fast enough. As anyone who has read even a little about ecology knows, all species, including ours, are dependent on other species. We may survive the loss of a species, but we might not survive the loss of the species dependent on the one that was lost.
There are those who would pooh-pooh the loss of species, but the truth they cannot see is that when many thousands of species are lost forever, the chances are great that the losses will have a profound effect on human life. Honey bees, for example, are threatened by the chemicals we leave floating in the environment. If they are lost, the primary way that plants are fertilized will be lost with them, which would have a profoundly negative effect on the food we eat.
The Anatomy of Violence, by Adrian Raine, presents the latest science about how individual violence comes about. About the brain, and how it can be irreparably damaged by chemicals and parental abuse, creating a tendency toward violence. The times of greatest susceptibility are in early gestation and infancy. The brain of an alcoholic mother’s fetus can easily become terribly deformed, which can lead to violence in adulthood.
A generation ago the government began efforts to remove much of the lead in old homes, from paint, and improve gardening ground in poor neighborhoods, polluted by leaded gasoline. Although the lives of children born at that time were not otherwise different from their predecessors, they did much better in school, and the crime rate dropped sharply, and did not rise again. It appears that removing poisons that damage the young brain changes everything.
No matter how expensive such programs are, the savings are many times greater. In current news we read that a new, acidic water source for Flint, Michigan caused the lead in old water pipes to leach into the water, irreparably damaging the brain of virtually every kid in town. Moreover, water elsewhere in the US is similarly poisoned. Things like this don’t go away with less government.
Martin Ford’s book, Rise of the Robots brings us up to date in the world of work. Technology has displaced workers from the beginning of the Industrial Age, but starting about a half century ago technology began to replace workers with robots. Replacing them completely.
This should be good news. John Maynard Keynes predicted nearly a century ago that technology would make it possible for everyone to work twenty hours a week, with the same or greater output as before. What Keynes failed to take into account was the fact that these technological miracles were all owned by rich capitalists. Since it is inherent in capitalism that profit must be maximized, obviously none of the benefit from these machines will serve the common good. The result is that there is no work for those displaced. This is exactly what we see today.
Nobody is shielded from being replaced by a computer. Not the lowest laborer, not even the CEO. No one is safe.
The obvious problem comes from within capitalism. Capitalists will not give up their excess profit generators, and the result is a large and growing segment of the population that simply cannot find work.
Capital In the Twenty-First Century is Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, so far. Published in English in 2014, there are 577 pages of dense text that lead us through a careful progression that proves something that is actually a rather simple point: the very rich earn more on their investments than is possible for the rest of us. These people do not “work”, in the common sense of the word, because their entire effort is to increase the yield from their investments.
Now, the very rich operate secretly. None of them will tell us even what sorts of investments they have, but Piketty found the perfect way around this by analyzing the endowments of the richer universities, which are routinely made public. What he found is that Harvard University’s endowment grows faster than inflation, and faster than the investments of any of us other than the very richest can earn, because Harvard can afford to spend hundreds of millions annually for investment advice. The very wealthy can also afford advice that no one else can.
This, then, explains the inevitable progress of wealth. Once wealth reaches a certain tipping point, it becomes eligible for higher-priced advice that routinely earns greater returns. The very wealthy, then, are insulated from the economic difficulties that can affect the rest of us, and their wealth opens an increasingly greater gap above those even slightly less wealthy.
Obviously, the result is the widening inequality we see in today’s world.
This brings us to Jane Mayer’s recent book, Dark Money, which details the history of the billionaires of the radical right who have literally risked the fate of the planet and every living thing on it in order to earn ever greater wealth for themselves.
The most astonishing thing about these people is their absolute devotion to their own ever growing wealth, their belief in the efficacy of less government, and their total ignorance of anything else. They expect us to subsidize their wealth forever so they can become more rich with fossil fuels. They not only fail to understand the effects of pollution, they actively battle against the scientific consensus about planetary climate change. They have devoted decades and hundreds of millions to the idiotic battle against the science proving climate change, as if by disbelieving it they could make it so.
The Koch boys and their billionaire cohort have one grand belief: they should be able to do whatever they want to, with no restriction of any kind. They, in fact, want to abolish all government control, and in fact, all government, unbelievable as it sounds. Teddy Roosevelt said in 1913 that limitation of government power means that the people will be enslaved by the great corporations. It’s true more than ever today, and the billionaires are just as exasperated as ever when we fight back and they are unable to enslave us wholesale. They long ago gave up fighting in the open, and took their battle underground, where their motives and and money would remain hidden if it weren’t for writers like Jane Mayer.
If you can’t win an election honestly, cheat. If you want all the money but you are morally bankrupt, go dark.