A Few Recent Reads

I had a chance to catch up on some reading while on vacation. Here are a few things I’ve enjoyed.

Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand. Brand takes what he calls a pragmatic look at common environmental debates and provides perspectives that really do seem pragmatic compared to the polarized views that make it into the media. Issues such as energy strategies, bioengineering food, and the evolution of immigration and poverty each made this worth reading for me.

Highlight: Hearing the left’s fear of science when it comes to genetic engineering of crops compared to the right’s fear of science when it comes to stem cell research.

Lowlight: It’s pragmatic. No easy fixes to our problems. However, it does point people in smart directions, so this isn’t much of a lowlight.

History of the United States, 1492 – Present by Howard Zinn. I’ve actually been reading this book for years. It’s the book I carry with me when traveling for times when my iPod Touch has died or I’m on a plane where they won’t let me use it (eg. you can’t use any electronics while in the air on Atlas Jet). Zinn takes a look at pretty much every major event in US history going back to the “discovery” of America, but puts a twist on things. While history is normally written by the winners, Zinn twists that and tells the stories from the perspectives of Native Americans, the working class, minorities, and other groups who’ve been along for the ride, but haven’t really been setting America’s agenda. The work by people in power that’s gone into building public support for the wars America has fought has been particularly interesting. Has the grassroots ever lobbied a reluctant government to go to war? It doesn’t look like it.

Highlight: Perspectives on how wars were sold to the American people, when labor organizing was effective (and what the government did about that), and how America’s Native Americans were screwed, screwed, and screwed, were all well presented.

Lowlight: Many of the wage citations lack context. When Zinn says that someone earned x dollars per week in 1866, it’s hard to understand how ridiculous it is since I’m not as close to that type of data as Zinn clearly was. I also question many of his perspectives on farmers being driven off their farms. While mentioning that farming became rapidly more efficient in terms of yield per acre and per man hour, he then blames he mills, railroads, etc., for farmers being unable to make a living off their land. However, it seems like basic economics explains much of it: There are less farmers needed to create the same (or even more) food than there used to be due to a wide variety of efficiency improvements over time. While it would be nice if people could make a living farming a small piece of land, that’s less and less likely outside of boutique farming.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. If you’ve read Freakonomics, you’ll be familiar with Venkatesh’s work where a chapter is devoted to it. He essentially embedded himself with the Black Kings gang within the Robert Taylor Homes in the early ’90’s while in grad school at the University of Chicago. A very interesting read. If you like the show The Wire, you may find this interesting because it looks at gang structures, chain of command issues, and dealing with corrupt cops, among other gang related issues.

Highlight: It does a great job explaining how people who have to deal with the system on a regular basis have no faith in the system. Corruption in public housing, police, elections, etc. are so blatant that they have extraordinarily low expectations from government.

Lowlight: This is not a how-to on how to start your own crack business.

5 thoughts on “A Few Recent Reads”

  1. I think you should consider that maybe Zinn didn’t give you enough details about how those farmers were driven off their land. No workers labor harder than farmers, or are more manipulated/screwed by banks and corporations.

  2. @Mark, you’re probably right. What was missing to me was an explanation of why people chose a profession with so much financial risk. Yes, farmers are manipulated and screwed by banks, suppliers, and buyers. So why did people put themselves into situations like that?

  3. You don’t hire on to become a farmer, you grow up on a farm. The only farmers I’ve ever met who did not grow up farming were related to the people who owned the land (usually childless couples).

    Today’s farmers represent just a small fraction of the people who grew up on farms. Most of us left. My dad’s farm provides my youngest brother with a decent income (thanks to his foresight in marrying a school teacher and then deciding to sell seed on the side), but my brother could never afford to buy a farm. If you don’t inherit land, it’s almost impossible to become a farmer unless you sharecrop, which is a pretty hard way to make a living.

  4. Pingback: Gang Leader for a Day | Bill Roehl
  5. I too have been muscling through Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and am finding it revealing…I knew the generalities, but Zinn offers specifics which helps greatly.

    The latest revelation was on page 349 – where it is revealed that the great ‘progressive era’ (early 1900s) was actually a conservative movement, wherein conservative business self-interests were moved to pass reforms that they wrote instead of allowing the growth of socialism and general labor rebellion to occur.

    Ironically this conservative movement created the BIG government intrusion that now conservatives claim they do not need. It seems conservatives have not read their own history to realize why they created these reforms to begin with.

    And of course all the other label-makers have forgotten their history too and refuse to recall where the labels they ignorantly toss about today truly came from…most of their kin were probably socialists–populist farmer co-ops and worker wobblies–and darn proud of the reforms their movements created. These ancestors probably would be ashamed to see their fat and crabby labelmaking grandkids lazing about on their PCs all day railing about socialists–where would these kids be today without their grandparents having been socialists?

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