Saving the Middle Class: A Review of Robert B. Reich’s After Shock, The Next Economy and America’s Future (Knopf, 2011)

March 7, 2011

With the American economy still in recovery mode, it’s a good time to consider whether the recession that began in 2008 was an aberration caused by, take your pick – government housing policies or greedy Wall Street speculators or both, or whether it stemmed from a more fundamental “structural” problem. Robert B. Reich, professor of public policy at U.C., Berkeley and former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, comes down on the side of the latter in After-Shock, The Next Economy and America’s Future. The “Great Recession” as he dubs it, “was but the latest and largest outgrowth of an increasingly distorted distribution of income” (p. 5) which must be addressed lest the U.S. fall prey to reactionary political forces like those that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler (p. 90-91).

The distributional distortion began according to Reich when our political leaders failed to foresee or confront the impact of technology and global competition on the living standard of America’s middle class beginning in the 1970s (p. 6). As a result, over the past 35 years the rich have been free to get richer, while income levels for the middle class stagnated.

The middle class didn’t feel the pain for a while Reich argues because America’s families added a second wage earner, worked longer hours and was able to take advantage of cheap credit to purchase everything from houses and cars to lattes and Big Macs. Reich views Great Recession as the playing out of those “coping mechanisms” – when policies that had allowed people to borrow more than they could repay resulted in a house of cards debt structure that inevitably collapsed (p. 7).

Reich believes that the middle class is not getting its fair share of what our economy produces. That was not true he writes from the end of World War II until the mid-1970’s when middle class incomes were on the rise and the country prospered. To redress this imbalance and restore the implied bargain between the wealthy and the middle class, Reich calls for a tax driven redistribution of income, which he posits, can be brought about if America’s corporate CEOs go along – not primarily on moral grounds, but out of self-interest. If the rich give up some of their wealth to the middle class, the economy will grow Reich argues and they will benefit along with everyone else.

What does Reich propose?

Reich offers two kinds of reforms – those designed to redistribute income and those aimed at helping people who have been impacted negatively by economic dislocation. By asking those earning over $410,000 to accept being taxed at 55% (roughly 67% higher than today) and by imposing a “carbon tax” on energy producers, Reich proposes to raise enough money to institute a reverse income tax whereby people earning less than $50,000 a year are to be given up to $15,000 a year by the government. This he argues would result in sufficient domestic consumption to get the economy moving again and forestall any potential political crisis.

To deal with dislocation Reich favors measures including universal Medicare, school vouchers based on family income and making college entirely free at public colleges although graduates would be expected to repay the cost out of their future incomes.

One can argue about Reich’s specific reforms. I question for example whether it’s wise to give people an incentive to earn less and certainly one can question his plan for bringing about these reforms: namely, relying on corporate leaders to buy into his analysis of what’s in their best interest. However, focusing on his solutions assumes that we accept his thesis that the relatively static level of middle class incomes over the past three decades is largely a function of a distortion in the domestic economy brought about by public policy beginning with the Reagan presidency?

Another Interpretation

My major complaint is that Reich fails to take into account major developments in the global economy. To do so requires one to recognize that the prosperity the US experienced during Reich’s “Great Prosperity” – which he dates from 1947 to 1975 – was built on the imbalance in our trade with the third world, an imbalance which allowed us to obtain oil and other natural resources on the cheap and to charge high prices for our agricultural and manufacturing products.

What began with competition from Japan and Germany and continued as a result of OPEC’s raising the price of oil was a redressing of that imbalance. World-wide competition led to the long slow rise of third world economies such that today they are growing at a faster rate than the U.S. economy. China, Brazil, India and even small countries like Vietnam are also attracting capital that once preferred to stay home as well as capturing jobs once held by U.S. workers.

An alternative interpretation of the events which Reich describes as a distributional imbalance between America’s wealthy and its middle class is that the U.S. economy as a whole has been undergoing a re-balancing between the developed and under-developed worlds which has limited the incomes of those Americans who formerly benefited from lack of world-wide competition. While Reich is correct in stating that Reagan lowered taxes on the rich (along with the middle class) and that salaries of some CEOs reached levels not justified by their contributions to their shareholders, the extent to which the stagnation of middle class income levels can be laid to these policies has to be understood in this global context.

Who is Middle Class?

My second disagreement with Reich is over his use of the term “middle class”. He defines middle class in a footnote as “the 40 percent of American families with incomes above the median family income and the 40 percent below” (p. 19).

Even on his own terms, lumping 80 percent of American families into one “class” is problematic. In 2006, more than 12% of family incomes fell below the government’s poverty threshold and a full 20% had incomes under $20,000. By the way, the definition of family income includes food stamps, alimony, unemployment insurance and disability payments for all members of a household whether related or not. Family income data does not, however, include the underground economy, which experts size at between $690 billion and $1 trillion annually.

Reich wants us to believe that a family with earnings under $20,000 a year shares the same stake in the economy as a family earning $120,000 a year. Consider however that two-wage earner professional families have sufficient income to enjoy the fruits of their labor and thus are overwhelming optimistic about the future. Nor they are likely to support scape-goating political candidates. At the other end of the spectrum, the woes of the lowest income families are not caused by unemployment levels or lack of opportunity. Instead a variety of social factors interfere with poor people from gainful employment. In terms of the political threat of this segment of society, the majority of very poor are not registered to vote and those that are rarely show up at the polls. Part of the group in between the poorest and the two-wage earner families on the other hand may feel resentment towards those who are very successful. It is this segment that supported the tea party movement and which could support candidates offering even more drastic policies.

That analysis – sketchy as it admittedly is – points out the problem with Reich’s definition of middle class: the concept of class in today’s world ought not to be accepted as valid. The term stems from Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism as containing the seeds of its own destruction by pushing more and more people into a working class that would get poorer and poorer until revolution was its only hope. More than one hundred years of history ought to be enough to dissuade people from thinking that American society is made up of classes that are so rigid that once someone has fallen into the working class he is unable to rise out of it. Further, recent history ought to dissuade anyone from viewing corporate America as a set of powerful business interests that dominates America economically and politically. Instead even before the 2008 recession we saw giant corporations brought to their knees and disappear while upstarts grew from dormitory rooms and garages to garner their founders Forbes 500 listings. Consider as well that corporate CEO’s lack either tenure or a guaranteed term in office to protect them against their business failings.

Use of the term ‘class’ in any discussion of American society ought to be recognized as a form of political propaganda. It presumes a reality that is not borne out by fact or by history, and when accepted loads the discussion in favor of those who benefit from the conclusions that class is an effectual social construct.

Unfortunately too many Americans do not realize that this is not our reality. Even in recessionary times our society offers incredible opportunities for people of talent and ambition to create lives of accomplishment and to gain personal comfort. The problem is that many of the adults who are at the bottom income rungs lack the necessary combination of ambition, ability, education and experience required to take advantage of those opportunities. That’s why there are unfilled jobs in all kinds of industries and not just at high-tech companies hungry for software engineers.

My final objection to Reich’s analysis is that it presupposes a static world. Those families whose incomes were just above the poverty threshold in 1980 were by 2000 most likely living in largely paid for homes with two cars in their driveways and a TV in every room. And, when comparing purchasing levels of a family in 1980 versus 2010 one must also take into account the quality of the product being purchased. Today cars both offer more safety features and last longer; homes offer greater comfort for family members; healthcare continues to add years to people who might have succumbed in the past. Most families move up the income ladder over their work lives and thus do not feel the pain Reich would have them feel.

Viewing all this from the after affects of the current recession distorts the big picture. As a result more people are pessimistic than five years ago and they are searching for someone to blame. In that regard Reich is correct to be worried.

What’s the Solution?

Even if Reich’s analysis that 80% of Americans have a unified social need, and I believe it is fundamentally flawed, that does not mean that his reform measures ought not to be considered. He is probably correct that the economy would be better off if people with incomes under $50,000 a year had more to spend on clothing, vacations and electronics. Alternatively, we as a society might want to provide more resources to those families on moral grounds even if it did not cause our economy to grow faster than it would otherwise. The problem is how to aid such families without harming our economy in the process.

Given my understanding of major world economic trends, reducing the ability of American companies to compete globally is the worst thing we can do. Any policy that hampers the emergence and growth of businesses that serve an international market is akin to economic suicide. That includes policies such as raising the tax on capital gains. Why? Such an increase will hamper investment in U.S. companies while providing an incentive for investors to look overseas. Because politicians and bureaucrats are inevitably poor arbiters of which businesses should grow and which should die, we should adopt policies that encourage domestic capital to support domestic entrepreneurship. For proof of that government is incapable of picking the right companies to back consider the abominable record of producing jobs of programs like NYS’ Empire Zones.

Second, we need to revise the policies that limit growth companies from obtaining skilled workers no matter their nationality. The current quota on foreign workers is also a form of economic suicide. Highly skilled people who cannot accept a job in the U.S. because the annual quota for such workers has been filled two months into the year may very well end up working for overseas companies that compete with the very U.S. companies that would have hired them, further weakening our economy and pushing more Americans down the economic ladder.

Finally we need to do something about the fact that millions of Americans find they are better off living off the underground economy while collecting unemployment and Medicaid, and the like than they would be if they accepted a 9 to 5 job. When a hospital in San Jose CA cannot fill unskilled and semi-skilled positions while millions are out of work, something is very, very wrong. (See Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2011.)

What about people displaced by the now more rapid transformation of our economy? The problem with government job training programs is that they often train people for jobs that are disappearing and pay poorly.

When I was 23 years old I spent a year (as a Vista Volunteer) teaching reading and math to men in Atlanta, Georgia who were receiving training in auto mechanics, carpentry, plumbing and painting. The problem with those career choices was that to get a good job as an auto mechanic you had to be sent for manufacturer’s training by your dealer employer. The problem with plumbing and carpentry was that the unions weren’t admitting blacks and the problem with painting is that no amount of training gave graduates a leg up in the job market.

Even community colleges can’t always move fast enough to provide courses in fields that come open. A better solution would be to give displaced workers vouchers that they could present to businesses with openings to cover training expenses.

Tax Policy Dilemma

It’s true the rich won’t miss the money some want to take on top of the current rates as much as the poor would benefit from having a small piece of that pie. The problem is that redistribution of wealth by government policy does not address the underlying problems America faces as a super power that can no longer dominate the rest of the world economically as it once did. Nor is expanding the current redistributional tax system a long-term solution. The likely damage is greater to the recipients of such aid to the extent they continue to believe they are guaranteed a certain standard of living just by virtue of being an American. Instead we need political leaders who explain to the public that world-wide competition is threatening our standard of living and that the way to fight back is to develop a more entrepreneurial society not hamper private sector growth as would occur under Reich’s plan.


Book Review: Tales from the Sausage Factory

January 28, 2011

Tales from the Sausage Factory; Making Laws in New York State
by Daniel L. Feldman and Gerald Benjamin
Excelsior Editions (State University of New York Press), 2010

A unique collaboration between a pol and a prof, the authors deliver what the title –Tales from the Sausage Factory – suggests: an expose into the messy world of law-making by the NYS Legislature. Feldman delivers the experience – detailed descriptions of his attempts to write or influence legislation over nearly 2 decades (1981-1998) – while Professor Benjamin adds the perspective of the detached observer.

This book somewhat reminds me of what happened to Upton Sinclair when he wrote The Jungle in 1905. He aimed for the mind, hoping to convert people to socialism, but instead hit them in the stomach. Feldman and Benjamin aim to show us a process that works, but many readers will come away convinced that things are even worse than they originally thought.

Certainly people will come away disappointed if they hope to learn that representative government is capable of producing laws that do not allow interest groups to prevail at the expense of the common good. To the contrary, we learn that legislative outcomes are a reflection of a continuous war between a thousand interests filtered through a political system that favors the resourced and the disciplined.

Case in point is Feldman’s attempt to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Feldman’s views on the topic were changed by first-hand exposure as chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee. In that role he realized that the net that was supposed to catch and punish drug pushers was hauling in thousands of low-level users instead. The result was a dramatic rise in New York’s prison population taking money away from education and other needed programs. Yet the push to reform lacked advocates with sufficient clout to change the system for more than two decades. In fact the interest groups like the District Attorney’s Association and the political players including former Governor Pataki found it advantageous to advocate reform while withholding a commitment to actual change. Words sometimes do speak louder than actions.

Tales is largely Dan Feldman’s story. It is unique perhaps in the sense that Feldman came to the Legislature more focused on doing a good job than holding onto his office. That cannot be said of some of his colleagues for whom a long career in the Legislature is the pinnacle of their life’s achievements. As a result Feldman was more engaged and more principled, which also explains why he is no longer there.

As a writer Feldman often tries to pack more than is necessary in a single sentence. In his final chapter he writes: “Sustained passion for change, harnessed and focused, can overcome the ordinary tendency of those with shared beliefs in an issue to leave the work to others, and prevail against more easily mobilized economic interests.” (p. 302). In other words the more people care the more likely they will succeed. However, on the whole Feldman offers a nuanced picture of the process of give and take, of walking the fine lines of the political matrix, and of how individuals affect outcomes.

Professor Benjamin’s role in the project was to provide the historical and institutional perspective, which he does admirably. He helps the reader understand the evolution of the Legislature’s arcane procedures in the context of New York’s demographics and political alignment. His discussion of how the Tom DiNapoli was chosen to replace Alan Hevesi is a gem, reminding us why the Legislature is able so often to get away with doing things in the face of opposition no matter the source.

The book will offer encouragement to those who are or hope to be participants in the political process. Change is possible, but it takes persistence and luck, and it rarely comes quickly. Tales also serves as a reminder that politics is a tricky business. Laws often have unintended consequences and change doesn’t always take place in the way one expects. Case in point is that DAs around the state changed their behavior to modify the impact of the Rockefeller Drug Laws thus lessening the need for reform, which ironically helped make it possible for the formal legal change to take place.

The authors provide detailed references, which is another reason that Tales deserves to be read by public officials, journalists, students, political activists and citizens alike.

Toward Civic Integrity, A Book Review

September 30, 2010

After more than six years of haggling, the final hurdles were overcome recently for the construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter within the city limits of Gloversville in Fulton County in upstate New York. While Gloversville City Court Judge Vincent DeSantis, author of “Towards Civic Integrity; Re-establishing the Micropolis,” (2007) understands the motives of the public officials who pushed the project through, he believes that this is exactly the wrong kind of development that’s needed for cities like Gloversville to function successfully in the 21st century.

In his self-published extended essay, Judge DeSantis chronicles oft-repeated accusations against Wal-Mart centered communities. In addition to the charge that they drive locally-owned stores out of business, do not provide living wages to their employees and “suck” money out of the community, DeSantis points out that big box top managers have no personal involvement in or commitment to the local communities in which their stores are located.

When the new Wal-Mart opens in 2011, the company will close its current store, which is located on Gloversville’s outskirts. That will negatively impact the stores, restaurants and bank branches that chose to locate in that area because of the traffic Wal-Mart generated. One can picture driving past those stores in the not too distant future and seeing empty parking lots. This is precisely the kind of social cost that DeSantis rails against in his book.

Ironically, the location of the current Wal-Mart was once occupied by Gloversville’s minor league baseball stadium – an institution representative of an era when communities the size of Gloversville, which at the time had a population of around 20,000, were largely self-contained.

While its minor league ballpark was on the outskirts of the city, 60 years ago Gloversville’s downtown supported a high school, a hospital, two movie theaters, locally-owned banks, department and clothing stores, a public library, a YMCA, a YWCA, a Jewish Community Center, etc. – all within walking distance of the majority of its residents. The downtown in those days was symbolic of a city that had achieved a certain amount of prosperity. Gloversville even had both morning and afternoon newspapers.

In reviewing the history of Gloversville, DeSantis blames the beginnings of post-WW II globalization for undercutting the industry that served as the foundation for Gloversville’s self-contained prosperous community. He understands he writes the decisions of the factory owners who sought cheaper labor in Haiti and elsewhere. They had to relocate in order to remain competitive DeSantis argues. He fails to mention, however, the other reason that owners started moving shops overseas in the 1950s – a factor that undercuts his picture of Gloversville as an idyllic, balanced community.

One incentive for owners to move out of Gloversville was the strength of the labor movement in the tanneries and glove cutting and sewing shops.

In the early 1930s, one in four residents worked directly in the industry. The tanneries employed approximately 2,100, 3,500 worked in shops cutting leather and sewing gloves, while an unknown number worked out of their homes. (See Philip S. Foner, The Fur and Leather Workers Union, Nordan Press, 1950, p. 542-43.)

The mechanization of the glove industry after World War I reduced skilled craft people to easily replaceable laborers, which not surprisingly spurred the work force to organize for better pay and working conditions. Those efforts culminated with the formation of the Independent Leather Workers Union of Fulton County.

For insight into how bad some of the working conditions were in the tanneries and glove shops and the impact those conditions had on workers’ families, I recommend reading Gloversville native and novelist Richard Russo’s essay in issue 111 of Granta, a British literary publication.

In 1933, tannery workers held an 8-week strike that resulted in recognition of shop committees, 15 to 30 percent wage increases and the right to collective bargaining. After World War II, Taft-Hartley strengthened the employers’ bargaining position and the glove owners took advantage, seeking to break the union by demanding that it sign a contract without any pay increase. When the union refused, the owners of 18 tanneries imposed a lock out of union members, which in turn led to an-industry wide strike.

For the next eight months, owners tried all sorts of tricks to break the strike. They set up company unions, endorsed competing AFL & CIO unions and accused the leaders of Local 202 of being communists. Finally on January 25, 1950, they broke the strike by using the local police department assisted by paid goons to escort scab workers into the tanneries.

One shouldn’t make light of the extent of the division that existed in Gloversville between factory owners and workers during these years. My father, a doctor who came to Gloversville as a refugee after Hitler annexed Austria, was ostracized for providing medical care to members of the IFLWU and their families. For a while he thought he would have to move out of Gloversville in order to support his family.

Which brings me to my biggest concern with Judge DeSantis’ vision of the future. I have little quarrel with his criticism of the damage inflicted on communities like Gloversville by globalization of the world’s economy, but I do have questions about where that leaves us and whether his prescription for the future will do the trick.

DeSantis argues that the global economy is not sustainable. He believes that the damage being done to the planet by our oil-dependent economy will result in public policies that restrict economic activity such as shipping products from China to be consumed by Wal-Mart shoppers. The political will for such may or may not appear. Yet, he accurately describes efforts by more and more people to move off that stage – advocates for smart growth and people who produce food and other goods for local consumption. (See “The Internet Might Save Main Street,” by Peter Funt, WSJ, September 20 for a supporting trend).

The other factor that DeSantis believes militates against the global economy is the cost and availability of oil. However, his prediction that cost of oil will eventually become too high to sustain that economy seems no closer to coming to pass than when it was first voiced 40 years ago. Further, technology may find solutions to oil dependence that result in our being able to have our cars and drive them too.

But, the globalization of business is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it meant that a lot of locally owned stores in cities like Gloversville went out of business which in turn undermined the downtown-centered culture DeSantis admires. In Wal-Mart’s defense, however, Gloversville’s downtown was dying long before they built their current store. They just took advantage of the fact that area residents already had to get in their cars to do their shopping and that they were happy to find a store that had so many inexpensive products under one roof.

On the flip side, robust international trade enabled Europe and Japan to rebuild after WW II, which contributed to tremendous prosperity in Europe and the US for several decades. That prosperity eventually flowed downhill, helping to bring countries like India, Brazil, South Africa and China out of the throws of underdevelopment. Without globalization, there would be no middle class in China today and that country might still be under the thumb of Mao’s Culture Revolution where teachers and doctors were sent to re-indoctrination camps and peasants were given power because their poverty made them pure.

Bringing this back to Upstate New York, the car-centered economy actually helped communities like Gloversville, Schoharie and Saratoga survive the past four decades because people could enjoy small city life while being able to drive to good-paying jobs using the Thruway and Northway.

Today, the Internet offers the potential for new companies to locate in cities like Gloversville. However, as DeSantis admits these jobs will not be the factory jobs of the 1930s and 40s – either in the number of people employed or in their being able to employ unskilled, uneducated workers. Good jobs today require a more educated work force –programmers, technicians, graphic designers, people with language and writing skills, etc.. The question is whether business owners will be willing to locate in cities that unable to contend with the negatives of blight, poverty and high taxes.

The survival of cities like Gloversville in upstate New York may come down to whether the state of New York and the federal government get their acts together. Currently the state of New York is an albatross on the back on the upstate economy. Rather than helping communities meet the challenges of the 21st century, the state has failed to address the increasing problems localities have paying for basic services. Governors have done what they always do – look for some large scale project where they can hold a ribbon cutting ceremony and the leaders of the Legislature act as if everything north of Westchester County is someone else’s problem.

Yet Judge DeSantis does offer some valuable concepts for localities that have sufficient resources to fight the decline. Saratoga represents one example where community involvement worked; Amsterdam represents what happens when the community lacks sufficient local strengths. Whether it’s too late for Gloversville, time will tell, but ironically the taxes generated by the Super Wal-Mart may help pave the way for its revival.

NYS & the The Rise of Modern Conservatism

January 15, 2010

That’s the title of Timothy J. Sullivan’s book published by SUNY Press in 2009. I’ll be discussing the book with Susan Arbetter Monday morning on the Capitol Pressroom. Listen live from 11 AM to Noon (Monday thru Friday) or download the program to listen on your I-pod or MP3 player.

A World Few Care To Enter

November 9, 2009

Prison; Twenty-Five Years as a New York State Correction Officer by Chris Leo.

In a famous experiment in the 1970s at Stanford University a professor created a “prison” in the basement of an academic building, then brought in a group of volunteers screened to exclude any with past involvement in the criminal justice system. The group was divided up arbitrarily into inmates and guards. Within hours members of each group began acting as if the situation were real. The “guards” imposed increasingly harsh punishments of any degree of resistance to their authority and the “inmates” began to exhibit typical prisoner behavior. The experiment had to be called off before planned as the guards’ treatment became so severe as to cause multiple “inmates” to breakdown.

As much as people want to believe that upbringing, religious beliefs, personalities AND TRAINING can overcome the influences of the prison environment, evidence from history as well as numerous academic studies demonstrate otherwise. The fact of the matter is that prisons are an unnatural social environment where thick rulebooks are necessary to control every aspect of the behavior of the guards as well as the prisoners.

The general public has little appreciation of the impact prisons have on guards or “correction officers” as they are known in most systems. They also have no idea that many guards feel they are treated worse by prison administrations than the inmates. Social scientists view this is a natural characteristic of prison systems in which even administrators who might like to supply CO’s with proper respect support and training are constrained from doing so in order to preserve the totality of the system.

Keep in mind that prisons exist so that society can punish those who have violated its laws by denying them liberty for a period of time that is supposedly commensurate with their crime. One problem with that formula is the tendency to escalate punishment for existing crimes as well as continuously add new crimes to the books as legislators find that it is easier to be “tough on crime” than risk non-penal solutions to social misbehavior. Those same legislators however do not find providing funds for programs, training or a sufficient number of guards to ease the tension between guards and administrators helps their re-election efforts.

Chris Leo, Sr. began his career as a CO at the age of 18 at a time when New York was having trouble finding enough people over the age of 21 to take the job. After 25 years of service he “retired” to take on the duties of legislative director of the NYS Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA), a group which won the right to represent New York CO’s when a previous union was seen as not having fought hard enough on their behalf.

Leo has self-published a brief book in which he discloses some of his own experiences as a CO and details his complaints against the NYS Dept. of Correctional Services (DOCS). Leo’s stories are instructive and I recommend the book for anyone who cares about what really takes place inside our prisons. The problem is that it’s hard to envision a world in which Leo’s complaints are adequately addressed.

Today in New York demographic factors have reversed the long-build up of the prison population from under 20,000 in the late 1970s to over 70,000 at the turn of the century. The decline in the prison population has enabled DOCS to begin the process of closing prisons, but in so doing they have not mitigated NYSCOPBA’s view that the corrections officer is lower on the state totem pole than the prisoner. (Read my interview with NYSCOPBA president Donn Rowe for further details.) Given New York’s fiscal situation unless there is a sharp upturn in crime, increasing funding for DOCS is and will continue to be the lowest of priorities.

The most optimistic outcome of the current economic and political climate would be a continued decline in the overall prison population while maintaining most of the current number of correction officers. That and more insights like those provided by Leo into what a CO has to go through on a daily basis might help NYSCOPBA achieve its mission and give Leo cause to feel putting his life on the line for 25 years were not in vain.

Click here to learn how you can purchase the book or contact Chris Leo at 518/573-2996; email:

End of Summer Reading Recommendation

August 27, 2009

Our Lady of Greenwich Village by Demot McEvoy, Skyhorse Publishing, October 2008

Someplace in every campaign manual there’s a section called “Don’t Mix Religion with Politics”…probably without the caveat, “unless you’re writing a novel.” But that’s what Dermot McEvoy has done and if you’re looking for a quick fun read on your end of summer vacation, I recommend you put this novel in your travel bag.

Our Lady is constructed like a 3-act play. In the “first act,” we meet the protagonist – Wolfe Tone O’Rourke. How to describe him? A financially successful political consultant? Yes. A Vietnam veteran? Yes. A bachelor? Yes. The kind of guy you might sit down next to in an Irish bar in NYC who will tell you his troubles without your having to ask? Most definitely!

So, in Act I we meet a character who’s got a hold of life by the horns who won’t let go even though he’s much the worse for wear. A crowd of slimy bad guys who rule the roost are also introduced to set us up for Act II.

In “Act II,” Wolfe Tone sticks to his guns and life gives him a break. He finds his woman, stops drinking and starts to take on the bad guys. But look out! Here comes the inevitable monkey wrench. At the end of the “second act,” life is back on top and Wolfe Tone is in a quandary.

In the final act, things work out just like Will Shakespeare showed us how to do it. The solution includes a little religious mysticism, which would be a no-no in real life politics. But this is fiction after all and because it’s skillfully and tastefully accomplished we’ll grant McEvoy the license.

In the end do the bad guys get vanquished? Does the “speak truth to power” approach work out for once? Does the guy get to keep his gal? You can probably answer those questions yourself by now, but knowing how it comes out won’t spoil the read. McEvoy keeps the story moving at a fast clip (until “act 3”) and we’re dutifully entertained by references to people real (Bobby Kennedy) and barely disguised (“The B-man”).

Our Lady of Greenwich Village is the perfect book to read before the start of the fall political season. It’ll remind you why following politics is so much fun and also point out what today’s political world is missing.

Summer Reading: Power Ambition Glory

July 28, 2009

One of the books CEOs and would-be CEOs are taking with them on vacation this summer is Power Ambition Glory by Steve Forbes and John Prevas (Crown Business, 2009). Steve Forbes of course is editor-in-chief of Forbes Magazine and a former presidential candidate. John Prevas is a classics scholar whose earlier volumes so fascinated Forbes that he invited Prevas to join him on this project.

Power Ambition Glory, however, is unlike motivational volumes that present the lives of ancient warriors like Genghis Kahn as unvarnished models for modern day business leaders. As such, it is a book that current and would-be political leaders can and should learn from as well.

What makes Power Ambition Glory different is that inconvenient historical facts are not overlooked to satisfy the conclusions the authors wish to present. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hannibal and other pre-modern leaders are presented with all of their weaknesses and flaws. In fact that’s the point of re-telling the stories of these great leaders – to learn from their mistakes as well as from how they accomplished what they accomplished.

Each chapter recounts the story of an ancient leader interspersed with parallels to modern business leaders. The brief business object lessons can be distracting, but they do not detract from the main theme that naked ambition without character, vision and the ability to follow through inevitably lead to failure whether on the battlefield, in the boardroom or in the halls of government.

Too bad the authors didn’t choose to throw in some examples of modern political leaders who came to believe their press clippings in manner that Alexander the Great came to believe that he could not be defeated. The names Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer come to mind. Bill Clinton has many of the attributes of the great ancient leaders – vision, daring and the ability to win public support. Yet, he could have benefited from reading about Alexander – whose personal excesses contributed to his downfall.

Sadly there are few examples of great leaders of ancient times who restrained their personal appetites. Yet a few great leaders managed to restrain themselves sufficiently to avoid personal tragedy – Xenophon and Augustus were two such leaders. Reading their stories is worth the price of the book.

Undoubtedly the calamitous meltdown of our housing and financial markets was the motivation for Power Ambition Glory. But one wonders whether people who are inclined to see themselves as gods – i.e., not bound either by the laws of nature or man that bind the rest of us – would be deterred by this book — even if they were inclined to read it.

My guess is that despite the lessons of Power Ambition Glory in about 10 to 15 years we’ll be reading in Forbes Magazine about the next generation of Dennis Kozlowski’s and Bernie Madoff’s. Politicians in my view, however, tend to be even more ambitious and less circumspect than CEOs. If so, it probably won’t take nearly that long before the next Eliot Spitzer trips over his own toga. Maybe that comes in Volume two.