Monday, March 24, 2008

The Prize by Daniel Yergin

At long last I finished Yergin’s masterpiece! The Prize is a sprawling epic history of the oil industry, from the discovery of the first well outside of Titusville, PA. leading all the way up to the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.

Yergin’s opus was recommended to me by the Senator, who makes his living at least in part from the shuffling of international hydrocarbon resources. Weighing in at a dense nine-hundred pages, the book is nothing if not comprehensive. Yergin gives us a month by month accounting of the major incidents, deals, players and follies of almost everyone involved in oil from the mid-nineteenth century to near the present. This book is remarkably informative; I now know vastly more geography, political history, and way more about oil exploration, processing, and sales than I did before. Yergin’s writing is tight but filled with the kind of delightful anecdotes and details that humanize what could otherwise be a dry account of a history of industry.

Oddly, if anything, the book isn’t quite long enough. I’d love to read a revised new edition that dealt with the critical decade since the first gulf war. Oil and the politics and economics that surround it are a critical piece of understanding how the modern world works. It seems that this truism is becoming only more the case as we move towards the middle of the twenty-first century. We are all still Hydrocarbon Man, and look to continue to be for quite some time.

And just to be blunt: I really, really enjoyed reading this book. Found it fascinating, and it significantly changed the way I think about some elements of our world. Great work, Dr. Yergin!
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Milton Friedman, economic godfather of the modern neoconservative movement preached an extremist form of lassiez-faire capitalism. Friedman and his disciples from the Chicago School of Economics have shaped the growth of the modern free trade movement in countries from Chile to Russia to South Africa to the Maldives. But is the Chicago school doctrine, which calls for flat taxes, globalism, multinational corporations which replace most traditional functions of the state actually good for the citizens of those countries in which it has been implemented? Naomi Klein definitely doesn’t think so.

Klein’s work here is brilliantly researched and painstakingly footnoted. Her arguments are generally persuasive. She tracks Friedmanism and a corresponding destruction of democracy and worsening welfare of the body politic from Pinochet’s Chile to the corporatized Green Zone of modern day Iraq.

I can’t help but feel that Klein could have benefitted from a slightly tighter focus. Her attempts to draw a parallel between the sensory-deprivation, LSD and shock treatment experiments of Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron and MKULTRA and the economic “shock therapy” of Friedmanic capitalism seems strained. Indeed, the whole metaphor of extremist capitalism as torture writ large upon a population ends up seeming weak. It presupposes the value judgment that Dr. Klein hopes to lead the reader to, weakening her arguments. This lack of focus occasionally pokes it’s head up in other ways as well – as with Klein’s comments about the benefits of the Canadian health care system, which, while accurate, end up reminding the reader that Klein is anything but open minded about her topic. As an avid anti-globalist, and a democratic socialist, Klein has wonderful insights, and has done great research; let them stand on their own. Descending into rhetoric which is outside the scope of the core argument distracts the reader, and ultimately slightly tarnishes Klein’s credibility.

This mild criticism aside, the book is a fascinating five hundred page tour through failed experiments in capitalism by the World Bank, IMF, and the US military-industrial complex. Klein walks the same halls as did Perkins in Confessions of an Economic Hitman. But where Perkins came across as a bit of a self-aggrandizing hack, Klein is an eloquent, thorough scholar.

This book is a fascinating expose into the economic theory which has driven a particular brand of US foreign policy over the last half-century. If half the goateed teenagers protesting the WTO talks in Seattle had been even slightly as bright and well informed as is Dr. Klein, it’s likely that the world might have paid a lot more attention to their protests. This is the most articulate anti-globalism screed I’ve ever read.
If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien

I had tremendous respect for The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. This earlier semi-biographic novel walks through the same rice paddies, NCO tents, and chopper rides to safety. Like O’Brien’s other works there’s a lot of meta here. The author and the narrative itself both exist inside the narrative. There’s an ongoing dialog between reader and writer which forms a subtext for the story.

At its heart, the novel is an anti-war message by one of those who knows best what the human costs are and how the fog of war can obscure both moral judgment and clear definition of purpose. When you’re head down in the trenches, or picking up the arm of a friend just killed by a child’s grenade, it’s hard to know think much about Marshall Doctrine.

This work is not as powerful or as sophisticated as The Things They Carried. It seems to have been a warmup piece. But it was engaging, short, easy to read, and contained at least a few things which had not yet been said about the most over-written war in recent memory.
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Hot Zone may have started the “out-of-control-virus-stopped-at-the-last-minute-by-dedicated-scientists” genre that the film Outbreak capitalized on back in the late nineties. See, apparently Marburg, an Ebola like virus managed to escape from the Rift Valley of Africa and make it’s way to a suburb of Maryland. Luckily, CDC comes in and saves the day by taking out all the infected monkeys. Or something like that.

The Hot Zone wasn’t particularly fresh, interesting or compelling to my mind. But it did feature lots of detailed and gruesome descriptions of the effects a virus like Marburg has on the human body.