Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks At Japan is a fine addition to a long list of books that attempt to explain Japan, what one observer has called the “most foreign of foreign countries.” Berman succeeds in his explanation mostly by avoiding the polarized industry of such explainers. To put Neurotic Beauty in context, let me explain.
The Explainer Industry
Almost all books “about Japan” (I’m leaving out the 600 page volumes on the geisha or the photo essays on whatever new trend is coming out of Harajuku) fall into one of two categories.
The predominant narrative declares Japan a near-perfect place, an epicenter of pure Zen that has whatever the author thinks his home country lacks. The minority opinion is that Japan has come over the hill and because of its poor treatment of women workers, warlike past or economic hollowness or whatever, is doomed to be a footnote when the history of modern civilization is written. Perhaps some sort of Switzerland with much better food.
Berman asks: Why can’t both be true? Why can’t Japan be a place with a once beautiful, encompassing culture of craftsmanship, that lost its way in the modern world and, if it can find again what it really is about at its core, become the first post-capitalist country?
A Cultural History of Japan, with an Angle
The book’s argument begins with a look at what Berman sees as Japan’s cultural soul, craftsmanship. He details the relationship early potters, sword makers and others had with their work, a desire to do more than simply make something — a desire to create themselves as human beings through a quest for perfection in their work.
Inklings of this tradition still exist in modern Japan, as anyone who has seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi can attest to. The sushi master requires his apprentices to practice for years before they can prepare food for customers, and the very few who stay on through the process get great joy from the process, more so than the results.
Japan Went Insane
As the Tokugawa (for simplicity’s sake, the samurai) era was coming to a close, Japan went insane, and abandoned all that, according to Berman. Fearful of being turned into a colony of the west, as was happening in China, the Japanese embarked on the Meiji Restoration. Science and engineering became the sole point of education, aimed in large part at building up a powerful military. Those forces, in imitation of the colonial west, would be turned on Japan’s Asian neighbors. Japan made itself almost literally overnight into as rapacious an imperialist nation as it possibly could.
And at that point, Berman draws a straight line through Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading right to the surrender that ended WWII. But instead of finding its way back to something of itself, Japan simply dropped capitalism in its imperial guise and picked it up in its hyper-consumerism guise. The so-called economic miracle of the 1960’s put appliances into homes and money into the hands of a booming middle class, but did nothing to fill the soul. The lost decades, and the current spiritual malaise in Japan as exemplified by the hikikomori and otaku cultures, were as inevitable as the spring rains which tear the cherry blossoms from the trees.
A Post-Capitalist Society
If you are at this point seeing some parallels to modern America, that is clearly intentional on Berman’s part (one of his earlier works is titled Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire). Japan has been trying to “fill the hole” in its spiritual center for nearly a thousand years, first with Chinese learning (including Chinese Buddhism), then with a martial culture, then with imperialism, and, most lately, with consumerism. None stick; they are all too unfulfilling and incomplete.
The key difference between Japan and the U.S., however, is that because it has a legitimate soul to potentially return to (from the day the first Native American was murdered, America has been all about appetite), Japan holds on to a chance that it may become the first post-capitalist society, one where living becomes more important than owning. This is a theme which will be not unfamiliar to readers of Berman’s last book, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. In Japan, there is something to fall back on.
It is a tall order, and Berman remains unsure what path Japan will take. Should it make the correct choice, however, the trope “only in Japan” could come to represent something more than Hello Kitty junk, bullet trains and cosplay.
Agree or disagree, Neurotic Beauty is a compelling, scholarly, narrative well-worth the time of readers seeking a better understanding of Japan.
I make no secret of my respect for Morris Berman’s body of work; read more here.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Look at any list of popular books and you’ll see it obsessively packed with self-help manuals, Chicken Soup for Teens, How to Be a Better Whatever, books about having better sex, better relationships, better jobs. At the same time, we live in a world under attack from advertising that cleaves to a single theme: whatever you have now, it is not enough. You need to buy something new! to smell better, look better, have a bigger TV, a bigger penis, a faster car. Buy a Model II today! and see it overwhelmed by the new must-have features in the Model III, three months later. With all that need for personal and material improvement, it can be darn hard to just be… happy. So you get back on the circle and read some more self-help books.
Repeat. Want more? Desire less.
Morris Berman Writes to Us
Morris Berman, whose prescient work detailing the decline and literal deflation of the American economy forms much of the philosophical underpinning of my own upcoming book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has written a new volume, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times.
Unlike his previous books, which focus on society and economy in decline, Spinning Straw is different. Maybe.
Actually, maybe not. The themes here are indeed about society, and economy, but zoomed out then into a very personal view. Berman reflects on his own life, with mention of a failed marriage, his decision to move to Mexico, all part of tracing his personal journey away from a world based on I Want into one where one’s happiness and contentment is divorced from more material things. But this is no hippie trip, and Berman’s book is no feel-good experience with a happy ending. In that sense, and it matters, Spinning Straw picks up the themes from his previous books and slaps them down inside you. In an interview, Berman spelled it out:
I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. I discovered that the best way of escaping American values—values that were killing me—was to escape America. It was the smartest decision I ever made. Most of us don’t realize how the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life has wrapped its tentacles around our throats, and is squeezing the life out of us. We merge with “our” narrative so as to have some measure of safety in our lives; but what if it’s a death-oriented narrative? (Usually it’s some version of the American Dream, which is the life of a hamster on a treadmill)… Life has a tragic dimension, and no amount of Oprah or Tony Robbins can change that. To hide from sadness—and one way or another, that’s what Americans struggle mightily to do—is to remain a child all your life. Most Americans have never grown up. Americans are probably the most superficial people on the planet. To dull your sadness with Prozac or cell phones or food or alcohol or TV or laptops is to suppress symptoms, and not live in reality. Reality is not always pleasant, but it does have one overriding advantage: It’s real.
In reading Spinning Straw, I was reminded of my chance encounter in old Kyoto with an elderly man who was one of the last makers of hand-crafted wooden buckets for use in a Japanese bath. He worked slowly, and seemed to make very little money, selling his product to mostly other elderly people. I asked him why he did what he did and he said “Because wooden buckets are good,” turning away from me. It was up to me to discard the simple truth– he did what he did because it was right– or learn from it. The old guy could care less what I thought, he had buckets to make. So it is with Spinning Gold; the author is not selling seats at a seminar or a CD collection of his happy talk; there are no “steps” or Five Most Important Things to Do Now. Indeed, you walk away with the feeling that while the author has much to say, if you’re too stupid to listen he could probably care less. There are buckets to make.
If the author was however forced into making some sort of list, it would be short. Slow down. Think more, purchase less. Look for meaning more than Wikipedia-ized facts. Enjoy the dance. The journey’s all we have until we get there, then that’s that. Hell, the whole book’s only 90 pages.
Those 90 pages are packed with stuff to think about. The need to break a cycle of what the author calls “stuckness,” the focus on elevating little things into big things where you end up screaming at a minimum wage worker because your coffee isn’t right or the Bubblicious is out of stock. There is the danger of buying (!) too deeply and quickly into a “narrative,” a way of life dictated to you where you falsely think you’re picking up safety and security but instead fall into a trap. Choosing competition over community isn’t like deciding caff or decaff, it is a philosophical “vector” that shoots you down a very different life path.
Blended into the pages are inklings of the “old” Berman. Obama’s seemingly overnight transformation from Hope and Change into a nightmare of drones and perpetual war is offered as an example of what happens when one doesn’t care about one’s soul. Power and influence require you to “inject poison into culture’s veins on a daily basis.” But if instead you follow the fairy tale of making straw into gold, you have a chance at a life that is full, meaningful and pleasantly finite– you can be happy and content once and for all. As Berman says, life is over faster than a blink, and then all you are is dead for a really long time.
You get it. The book is brief, the lessons long. In the time it took to read this review you could be well-stuck into Berman’s thoughts. Better to put this down and pick those up before another blink goes by.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I did have dinner with Dr. Morris Berman, and that made up for a lot of missed opportunities elsewhere. Dr. Berman, for those who don’t know, runs the blog Dark Ages America. Berman (pictured, left, perhaps not the best photo either of us has ever taken, but then again, the raw material is what it is) also wrote three books that to me are crucial to understanding the changes in America over the past couple of decades: The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire and Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline.
The titles tell the tale, and Berman’s blog is equally dark and straightforward. I’ve written more about Berman’s work here.
Dr. Berman gave a talk at Washington and Lee University in Virginia on post-9/11 America. As you might imagine, his survey, and, more significantly, his predictions, were of great concern.
Central was the notion that Americans have become enveloped in their own myth, what some call “American Exceptionalism,” to the point where critical thinking, reflection and debate are no longer possible among us. Anyone who tries to engage on America thoughtfully is either ignored, shunned or dismissed as a traitor (it is thus not surprising that under the Obama Administration whistleblowers are punished with the Espionage Act.) Replacing reflection in America is cheerleading, the endless pronouncements of who is Number One (as if anyone was asking outside our borders) and of course the citing of our exceptionalism as justification for everything from the destruction of the Native Americans to plans for the bombing of Syria.
Our present days are defined, according to Berman, by endless war and the completion of our police state. Is it not odd that the only country anyone can claim that won WWII has somehow seen fit to engage in continuous conflict ever since? Following a very brief respite between the Cold War ending and the convenience of 9/11 kicking off the Global War on Terror, America has now firmly set itself on course for endless war. The elements are all in place, primarily an enemy defined more by a tactic (“terrorism”) than anything else. Such an “enemy” can never really be defeated, and that indeed is the point.
The police state in America, always bubbling below the surface, with zit-like bursts during the J. Edgar Hoover years and the 1968 Chicago police brutality, now is in place. Cops regularly exercise “frontier justice” on our streets, gunning down the guilty and the innocent alike in what the media rushes to call righteous shoots. Police departments across the U.S. are equipped with the weapons of war, everything from armored vehicles in suburbia to drones soon everywhere. Things like “stop and frisk” in New York City criminalize everyone, with particular attention to race.
But worst of all is the realization that the power of government, spurred by surveillance tech undreamed of by the SS and the Stasi, has grown in power such that Americans can be denied jobs, travel and life itself based on their names being put by anonymous officials on secret lists. Indeed, the president can now indefinitely imprison Americans with the stroke of a pen, or choose to simply have them killed as they stand at the push of a Predator drone button. Imagine such power in the hands of a terrorist, then look out the window and realize it’s us.
Overlaying all this is of course our society and economy’s descent into what Berman calls Neo Feudalism. A very few rich control everything, served by a class of workers kept dangling just over starvation, with the mass of poor available in the wings to replenish the ranks should those workers complain or demand food and lives.
America as anyone might recognize it based on the previous definition, will simply devolve out of existence.
Now that was a hell of a lecture. We had a great dinner afterwards. I shall also note that Dr. Berman outdrank me two-to-one while still telling better jokes.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
We’ve talked about historian Morris Berman before here, and his view of a fading (some say faded) American economy and society. If you’re not familiar with his work, read a previous blog post, or visit his own website to catch up.
With Dr. Berman’s permission, we’ve reprinting one of his recent essays.
Home of the Brave
One of the more famous quotes made by Nelson Mandela during his lifetime has been curiously omitted by the mainstream American media in the gushing obituaries that have recently appeared. It goes like this: “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.”
I had occasion to remember this remark upon recently reading a review of Stephen Kinzer’s book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, recently published in the NYTBR. Kinzer used to work for the NYT, then switched over to The Guardian, and in between wrote two important books on American interventionism: All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror and Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq—both of them powerful indictments of U.S. foreign policy. He now returns to the scene with a biography of the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen.
The opening paragraph of the Times review is worth quoting in full:
Anyone wanting to know why the United States is hated across much of the world need look no farther than this book. The Brothers is a riveting chronicle of government-sanctioned murder, casual elimination of ‘inconvenient’ regimes, relentless prioritization of American corporate interests and cynical arrogance on the part of two men who were once among the most powerful in the world.
Both brothers, Kinzer tells us, were law partners in the New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, the firm that, in the 1930s, worked for I.G. Farben, the chemicals conglomerate that eventually manufactured Zyklon B (the gas used to murder the Jews). Allen Dulles, at least, finally began to have qualms about doing business in Nazi Germany, and pushed through the closure of the S&C office there, over John Foster’s objections. The latter, as Secretary of State under Eisenhower, worked with his brother (by now head of the CIA) to destroy Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, among others. The two of them pursued a Manichaean world view that was endemic to American ideology and government, which included the notion that threats to corporate interests were identical to support for communism. As John Foster once explained it: “For us there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who are Christians and support free enterprise, and there are the others.” It was not for nothing that President Johnson, much to his credit, privately complained that the CIA had been running “a goddamn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean,” the beneficiaries of which were American corporate interests.
The destructiveness of the Dulles brothers in foreign policy was mirrored by what went on in their personal lives. They were distant, uncomfortable fathers, not wanting their children to “intrude” on their parents’ world, and they refused to attend the wedding of their sister, Eleanor, when she married a Jew. At home and abroad, the two of them were truly awful human beings. But the most trenchant comment made by Kinzer reflects an argument I have repeatedly made, namely the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. “They are us. We are them,” says Kinzer, and this is the God-awful truth: that it is a rotten culture that produces rotten representatives. Americans benefited, materially speaking, from the corporate profits generated by the violence fostered by the CIA and the State Department, and didn’t say boo. They mindlessly got on the anti-Communist bandwagon, never questioning what we were doing around the world in the name of it. Their focus was on the tail fins of their new cars, and the new, exciting world of refrigerators and frozen foods, not on the torture regime we installed in Iran, or the genocide we made possible in Guatemala.
By the latest count, 86% of them can’t locate Iran on a world map, and it’s a good bet that less than 0.5% can say who John Foster Dulles was. When Mandela says that “they don’t care for human beings,” we have to remember that the “they” is not just the U.S. government; it also consists of millions of individual Americans whose idea of life is little more than “what’s in it for me?”—the national mantra, when you get right down to it. The protesters who marched in the streets against our involvement in Vietnam, after all, amounted to only a tiny percentage of the overall American population, and it’s not clear that things have changed all that much: 62% of Americans are in favor of the predator drone strikes in the Middle East that murder civilians on a weekly basis. You don’t get the Dulleses rising to the top without Mr. John Q. Public, and he is as appalling as they. Like the Dulleses, he typically believes in a Christian world of free enterprise vs. the evil others who do not, “thinks” in terms of Manichaean slogans, and is not terribly concerned about anyone outside his immediate family—if that. America didn’t get to be what it is by accident; this much should be clear.
“They are us. We are them.”
©Morris Berman, 2013
With thanks to regular reader Teri (not pictured) for the suggestion, I have spent the day mesmerized by the blog Dark Ages America by author Morris Berman (pictured, left). Berman wrote three books I now have on order about the changes in America: The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire and Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline.
The titles tell the tale, and Berman’s blog is equally dark and straightforward.
His post from May 9, Slouching Towards Nuremberg (I can’t seem to link to it directly, so go to the blog and scroll down, we all need the exercise), sums up so many things I have been thinking about, and writing about, this past year.
In charting America’s decline in that article, Berman lists topics before diving deeply into each one:
— The creation of a political climate in which the police are out of control, arbitrarily free to intimidate anyone for virtually anything;
— The persecution of whistleblowers, protesters, and dissenters;
— The dramatic expansion of the surveillance of American citizens on the part of the National Security Agency (NSA);
— The corruption of the judicial system by means of show trials of Muslim activists;
— The construction of political detention centers, also known as Communication Management Units (CMU’s);
— The shredding of the Bill of Rights by means of the National Defense Authorization Act;
— Future scenarios: The “disappearing” of intellectual critics of the U.S. government?
Maybe this is one of those things where most of you already knew about Berman and his work and are now wondering what rock I’ve been living under. But if not, take a look at the article cited here and see if your eyes don’t open a little wider for the trouble.
Not convinced yet? How about another Berman quote:
When a country puts laws such as torture or indefinite detention or arbitrary assassination on the books, sooner or later it will use these legal instruments. They won’t just lie dormant, in other words. As in the case of technology, once the mechanisms are there, the temptation to employ them simply becomes too great to resist. That is what is happening today.
One of my favorite quotes includes the lines “I awoke this morning to find that it was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.” I think that sums up a part of my thinking, but certainly not all.
A nuclear reckoning, war with China, or anything else quite so violently apocalyptic is imminent, or even underway, as far too many of us think. I live in one of those bubbles, the sum of which make up America now. Many of the people I talk to, in person and here online, seem to believe, truly believe, the world is coming to something of an end. These are by and large educated, once-rational people, some of whom have been voices of reason in the past. They are not that way now.
We are however falling, some important threads of our nation being teased apart, and our best days are behind us. But this did not start on November 8, 2016, or January 20, 2017, thoough historians will note those dates as significant milestones (same as September 11, 2001.) But not because of Donald Trump. Because his name just happened to be attached to what has been growing inside us since the end of WWII.
The Russians did not elect Trump. They may or may not have tried to get involved in the election, but we did this to ourselves. As the historian you have probably not read but should read Morris Berman predicted years ago, we are eating each other.
We are consumed most of all by our fears. Fear of what the Soviets, and maybe the Chinese, would do after WWII. We created a nuclear arsenal measured in how many multiples of times it could destroy the world. We dragged our country through disasters like Vietnam, that murdered so many and cracked apart our nation. Our fear of race, our war on drugs, and then of course our fear of a world beyond our control after 9/11. Another quote that seems to fit is “The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”
The fears were encouraged at every opportunity by those who profited from them, either by rawly making money, or by acquiring power and control, or in most cases, both. We are unconcerned — it’s normal — that politicians routinely leave office wealthy despite modest salaries. We have so much, and share so little. We enthusiastically abandoned so many of the good things about America, such as our Bill of Rights. America’s pre-WWII Constitutional Era was grossly imperfect. Yet for its obvious failings, there was a sense of the possibility of progress; halting, awkward, unfinished, but, well, for lack of a better word and to use a word that has become a symbol of modern irony, hope.
Of course none of that was close to perfect, but it was good and it is gone in some arenas and going away in most of the rest. We’ll still be allowed to rant on Twitter, a modern day bread and circus, but the real stuff of standing up and speaking back to government will happen only with handfuls of whistleblowers who will sacrifice their lives and freedom to say what they need to say.
I thought we had a chance at change in 2008 but instead was proven to be a dupe. I thought he might turn it all around, in those first weeks he could have asked the rivers to flow backwards and they just might have. He could have grounded the drones, torn up the Patriot Act, held truth commissions to bring into the light our tortures, re-emancipated America in ways not unlike Lincoln did in the 1860s. Slam shut the gates of Guantanamo, close the secret prisons that even today still ooze pus in Afghanistan, stop the militarization of Africa, bring the troops home, all of it, just have done it. What a change, what a path forward, what a rebirth for an America who had lost her way so perilously. One man could have made a difference and when he did not even try, he helped solidify in America a sense of cynicism and powerlessness that empowers evil people further. If there was no Obama there would be no Trump.
A new generation, and me again, thought there was another chance with Bernie Sanders. We were stupid. He was a distraction, and showed his true colors throwing away everything he said previously to support a candidate of the same old old school we’ve been voting for since WWII.
Trump is at best/worst a symbol of all this. How powerful people play us against each other and exploit our differences. How fear (currently fear of Trump filtered through fear of Putin) can be used to manipulate us. How the ideas of democracy can be so easily tossed aside so that our most progressive thinkers are convinced elections are illegitimate, and anything from silly name calling to demands for something akin to a coup are justified when the enemy is as perceived evil as Trump. Echoing the famous lines from Vietnam, it is in their minds necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.
I’ve written here before open letters to my daughters, talking about the world they are maturing into. This is in that spirit. Somebody, maybe them, is one day going to stop and wonder how they got to where they ended up, an oligarchy that profits from mouthing the nice words of our Founders while ignoring them. Maybe they will find this essay, dated for convenience only, January 20, 2017.
Are international trade deals, such as NAFTA and the TPP, good for America, or bad for America?
The answer is yes, depending on who you ask.
What Are NAFTA and TPP?
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into force in 1994, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is still pending ratification in the U.S. and elsewhere, are examples of the type of broad-based, large-scale international trade agreements now discussed by American presidential candidates with the same tone of voice used to speak of that wet soup in street gutters. Indeed, even discussing the subject of whether they are good or bad for America may be little more than an academic argument at this point; Trump has sworn to make no new trade agreements and says he will not support the TPP. Hillary is a little cagier in her response, but, for the record, for now, says she too will not support TPP.
But let’s slow things down a bit, and look into that key question, of how things like NAFTA and the TPP might affect Americans. After all, candidates do occasionally say one thing during the campaign, and another when actually in office, right?
International trade deals are agreements between countries, often groups of countries, that are designed to promote more trade, more goods and services, and sometimes more workers, moving across borders. The deals typically reduce taxes and tariffs, change visa rules, and sometimes soften regulations that keep foreign products out. The phrase used most often is “lower the barriers.”
So, if widgets made expensively in the U.S. can be made more cheaply in Vietnam and then imported into the U.S., something like TPP can facilitate that by lowering American tariffs on widgets. Meanwhile, Vietnam might be required to change its agricultural import system to allow American genetically modified fruit to flow into Hanoi’s supermarkets.
NAFTA is a good place to start in learning more, as it involves three countries — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — that generally get along, play reasonably fair, and already had a robust cross-border trade. Lots of non-variables there. Plus, since NAFTA’s been around for over 20 years, there should be a decent consensus on how it worked. That will provide a real world example to weigh against a newcomer like the TPP.
There are numbers. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says increased trade from NAFTA supports about five million U.S. jobs. Unemployment was 7.1% in the decade before NAFTA, and 5.1% from 1994 to 2007. But then again unemployment from 2008 to 2012 has been significantly higher.
You can find similar ups and downs on imports and exports, value of goods, and the like. Some are clearer than others; since 1993, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico have climbed 201 percent and 370 percent. The problem is trying to attribute them. Global economics is a complex business, and pointing to a singularity of cause and effect is tough.
Want to see for yourself? Here, and here, and here, and here are articles from smart people who can’t figure out if NAFTA has been a good thing or a bad thing. It is not that simple. And NAFTA, remember, was just three countries. The TPP would draw in 12 nations.
The Latin phrase cui bono means “who benefits?,” and is used by detectives to imply that whoever appears to have the most to gain from a crime is probably the culprit. More generally, it’s used in English to question the advantage of carrying something out. In the case of things like NAFTA and TPP, the criminal context might be more applicable.
Most everyone can agree that NAFTA made certain products cheaper for American consumers, as manufacturing costs are lower in Mexico than Idaho. American companies who found new export markets abroad also saw a rising tide of new money. The problem is that for many Americans, in the words of historian Morris Berman, that rising tide lifted all yachts, and not all boats.
Allowing American firms to make things abroad and import them into the U.S. free or at low tariff cost moves manufacturing jobs out of the United States. No argument there among economists. The current celebrity case, cited by several candidates, is that of Carrier. Carrier just sent 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico. Workers there typically earn about $19 a day, less than what many on Carrier’s Indiana assembly line used to make in an hour.
Carrier will see higher profits due to lower costs. They may or may not pass on some portion of those savings to American consumers. They have put Americans out of work.
Economists will often claim that such job losses are part of the invisible hand, how capitalism works, duh. The laid off workers need to learn to code and build web pages, migrate to employment hot spots such as California like modern day Tom Joads. But pay a visit to nearly anywhere in what we now blithely call America’s Rust Belt, and see how that’s working out.
Retraining industrial workers just does not happen overnight, even if there was free, quality education (there’s not.) Indeed, since the beginnings of the hollowing out of America, it has not happened at all. The risk is also that retraining takes unemployed, unskilled people and turns them into unemployed, skilled people. Training is only of value when it is connected to a job. Remember, as all those unemployed Carrier people somehow learn to build web pages, America’s colleges are churning out new workers, digital natives, who already have the skills. Even Silicon Valley’s needs are finite.
Patterns do emerge, and the American people know they’ve been had at the expense of corporations that do indeed benefit from international trade agreements. Many Americans see that average workers and thousands of communities have been screwed by trade agreements which put them in direct competition with low wage workers around the world.
Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us
Economist Robert Scott says he knows. He claims over the last 20 years, trade and investment deals have increased U.S. trade deficits and cost Americans their jobs. For example, the agreement allowing China into the World Trade Organization led to trade deficits that eliminated 3.2 million jobs between 2001 and 2013. Meanwhile, the United States already faces a trade deficit with countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that cost two million U.S. jobs in 2015.
In his 2008 book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, Josh Bivens shows that while the most privileged Americans have benefited from cost-savings due to trade, increased global integration harms working Americans. Bivens estimated that the growth of trade with low-wage countries reduced the median wage for full-time workers without a college degree by about $1,800 per year in 2011.
A Broader View
Of course there are dissenting opinions; another economist cautions “to understand how dismantling trade barriers helps the country, we also need to take a broader view of the American economy, and not focus solely on disruptions and lost jobs in particular sectors.”
And that makes sense, if you believe economics is about money.
But if one is asking whether or not international trade agreements are good, or bad, for America, one needs to think bigger. On a whole-of-society level, economics is about people. We all want American companies to make money. It’s also great that Walmart is full of low-cost consumer electronics from Asia, or Carrier air conditioners fresh from Mexico, but you need money — a job — to buy them.
Think broader, and you’ll see economics is about people. Let that answer the question for you about whether international trade agreements are good or bad for your part of America.
Does income inequality matter to the richest Americans? Not very much. Here’s why. And it’s more than just greed-is-good; the rich will just get richer.
A study by economists at Washington University in St. Louis tells us stagnant income for the bottom 95 percent of wage earners makes it impossible for them to consume as they did in the years before the downturn. Consumer spending, some say, drives the U.S. economy, and is likely to continue to continue to dominate, as the decomposition of America’s industrial base dilutes old economy sales of appliances, cars, steel and the like. That should be bad news for the super-wealthy, us buying less stuff?
But that same study shows that while rising inequality reduced income growth for the bottom 95 percent of beginning around 1980, the group’s consumption growth did not fall proportionally at first. Instead, lower savings and hyper-available credit (remember Countrywide mortgages and usurous re-fi’s?) put the middle and bottom portions of our society on an unsustainable financial path which increased spending until it triggered the Great Recession. So, without surprise, consumption fell sharply in the recession, consistent with tighter borrowing constraints. Meanwhile, America’s the top earners’ wealth grew. The recession represented the largest redistribution of wealth in this century.
The gap between most Americans and those few who sit atop our economy continues to grow. For two decades after 1960, real incomes of the top five percent and the remaining 95 percent increased at almost the same rate, about four percent a year. But incomes diverged between 1980 and 2007, with those at the bottom seeing annual increases only half of that of those at the top.
This leaves the very real issue for the rich of who will buy all the stuff their big corporations make? But don’t worry. They’ve got it handled.
Taxpayer Subsidies to Big Corporations
Don’t worry about the big guys; they have figured out how to profit off poverty. Wal-Mart, Target and Kroger have made profits of $75.2 billion off food stamp purchases, even setting a new record in 2012.
And never mind how food stamps and other benefits are used by those same retailers to subsidize the low wages they pay their workers. Meanwhile, the same bill in Congress that would cut food stamps pays out farm subsidies to America’s billionaires, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Charles Schwab and S. Truett Cathy of Chick-fil-A.
The American Beverage Association, a lobby group that includes Coca-Cola, strongly opposes restricting soda purchases by food stamp recipients. Why? Recipients spend from $1.7 to $2.1 billion annually for sugar-sweetened beverages. While alcohol and other unhealthy items are restricted for purchase with stamps, soda stands available.
Government Defense Spending
About the only manufacturing-industrial sector of the American economy left prevailing over all foreign competition is defense. America buys its military hardware almost exclusively from domestic corporations (with a few crumbs tossed to allies like the UK and Israel) and fills the job ranks of the industry, contractors, and military with Americans.
In 2011, the U.S. government spent about $718 billion on defense, including arms sales and transfers to foreign governments. Hardware alone accounted for $128 billion. The total figure does not veterans benefits of $127 billion in 2011, or about 3.5 percent of the federal budget. America’s newest aircraft carrier cost $13 billion, not including development costs.
The Stock Market
The stock market (which set record highs in 2013) is a significant source of wealth in America. Indeed, what could be easier than placing money into an investment and, with no sweat or effort of one’s own, seeing it grow. A rising market lifts the national economy, and a rising tide lifts all boats.
The truth is closer to a rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. Less than half of Americans own any stock at all. The wealthiest five percent of Americans meanwhile hold some 70 percent of all stock.
Bump the “top” group to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans and they own over 80 percent of all stock. At the same time, the lowest 90 percent own the leftover 20 percent.
So Don’t Worry about the Rich
These examples– and there are more– see tax write-offs, use of trusts to limit inheritance tax, offshore banking, large scale real estate (the top ten percent own about 40 percent of America’s land) show that income inequality is not a problem for the rich, and it is not a problem for America’s “economy” per se. The huge concentration of wealth in a small number of hands, and the methods by which those few acquire and maintain their wealth, means that the 99 percent of us edge closer and closer to playing no significant role in the economy anyway. We are becoming merely the collateral damage of income inequality.
Robert Reich, once Clinton the First’s Secretary of Labor and now a professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has emerged as one of the clearest pre-Piketty voices on income inequality and how it is affecting America. He asks why, in the face of incontrovertible evidence of their coming demise, our middle class remains complacent.
So why is there no revolution brewing?
Reich’s reasons– a working class paralyzed with fear it will lose the jobs and wages it already has, debt-laden students who are no longer a major force for social change, and an American public so cynical about government that many no longer think reform is possible– are valid. His idea that somehow some kind of reform is still possible is less so. Let’s look into this.
The Reality of Wealth
The gap between most Americans and those who sit atop our economy continues to grow. For two decades after 1960, real incomes of the top five percent and the remaining 95 percent increased at almost the same rate, about four percent a year. But incomes diverged between 1980 and 2007, with those at the bottom seeing annual increases only half of that of those at the top.
This is not some aberration. Instead, lower savings and hyper-available credit (remember fraudulent Countrywide mortgages and usurous re-fi’s?) put the middle and bottom portions of our society on an unsustainable financial path that increased spending until it triggered the Great Recession of 2008. Meanwhile, America’s the top earners’ wealth grew even as those responsible for the collapse were never punished and the companies involved received federal bail-out money (the money came from taxes paid in part by those destroyed in the Recession.) In the U.S., the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom ninety percent became poorer. The recession represented the largest redistribution of wealth in a century.
How did the most wealthy achieve this? The reality of possession.
The Reality of Possession
A rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. Less than half of Americans do not own any stock at all. The wealthiest of Americans own over 80 percent of all stock, and 40 percent of America’s land.
Short answer: The rich just get richer. They have no interest in reform or change. Things are working just fine for them. It is the reality of the system.
The Reality of the System
Walmart associates make minimum wage. Most associates are nowhere near full-time, so their take home pay is well below the poverty threshold.
In return for paying below-poverty wages, Walmart makes over $18,000 per employee, including $13,000 in pre-tax profits, after paying salaries, plus taxpayer subsidies of $5,815 per worker in the form of food stamps paid by the government to keep the workers nearer the poverty line than below it, and tax breaks given to “create jobs.”
The top four members of the Walmart family made a combined $28.9 billion from their investments last year. Less than a third of that would have given every U.S. Walmart worker a $3.00 raise, enough to end the public subsidy, though the four Walmart scions would have to make due with only $20 billion a year. But why bother to change when the reality of politics is so much in the company’s favor?
Essentially the interests of the 99 percent are in direct conflict with those of the one percent. The only hope lies in the reality of politics.
The Reality of Politics
Over large swaths of the earth, there are no elections. In some of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East and Asia, there is not even the pretext of anyone choosing a government. Most governments are controlled by family ascension, not unlike the scene in the Middle Ages. In many other places, elections are simply public stage plays, with the actual winners decided by corruption and manipulation. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that power and wealth work together.
Such is the case now in the United States. According to Professor Lawrence Lessing, that with the concentration of wealth, 132 people in the U.S. essentially control elections. They do so by donating, just that handful of people, over 60 percent of the SuperPac money. Those 132 people represent 0.000042 percent of the total number of voters; most other contributions to candidates are small, many below $200. How much is your vote worth?
It is not a coincidence that in 2016 the presidential race will likely again be a Clinton versus a Bush.
By reducing the ostensible choices to two, and by making the choice a false one as both candidates will differ little in their practices toward wealth and corporate profits, a very few super rich (indeed, a tiny subset of even the vaunted one percent) control the government. It is impossible under such circumstances for the government to create laws again the interests of the wealthy; after all, they work for them. The reality of change is that there is no reason to change.
The Reality of Change
The world has seen this before, for the West, during the Middle Ages, when feudalism was the dominant social and political state. A very, very few owned most everything of value. The 99 percent majority– serfs then, associates now– worked for whatever the feudal lords allowed them to have. In our more modern version of society, even the skilled artisan class that helped lift us out of the dark times may not exist as those activities (programming, services to the rich, medicine) are largely outsourced to places on earth were the pay even for skilled work is low.
Spayed, we’ll all accept it. Noisy but ineffective dissent will exist as a kind of entertainment, a diversion. The few real leaders among us will fall quickly under an almost-complete surveillance state coupled with militarized police. There thus, with apologies to Reich and Piketty, may be no means to foment a revolution, nor real reform. It remains possible, if not likely, that our nation will find itself in a new birth of feudalism, progress and growth a mere historical blip.
Still don’t believe me? Remember, at the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages only two thousand people owned all the land between the Rhine and Euphrates rivers. In 2014, 85 people own half of the world’s wealth.
My next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent (March 2014) deals with the changes to our American society and economy over the last fifty years, primarily the dilution of the Middle Class, replaced increasingly by the Working Poor, what people call the 99 percent. Though my book is ostensibly a work of fiction, telling the story through the experiences of one family, nearly everything in the book is based on fact. As you can guess from the title, my touchstone is Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck told the true story of American’s whose lives were destroyed by the Dustbowl and the Depression, through the lives of the fictional Joad family.
Here’s a new video to give you a preview of my book.
Direct link to the video.
A Nation at Risk
Our society is fatally at risk from growing economic disparity. The risk is more than the cold realities of poverty, hunger, and lack of medical care. Those are symptoms. The true risk is that along with the loss of jobs that paid a living wage, America has lost its and soul. A nation of broken people, forced to sell their self-respect to stay alive, is poor footing for a democracy.
The Industrial Revolution, which our grandpa’s rode up and our mom’s and dad’s caught the tail of, was the first time in our history that masses of Americans could get ahead simply by virtue of their skills and labor, without having to own land or be from a gilded family. Whereas since the abolition of slavery the system provided some avenues of growth and betterment to workers (albeit either grudgingly given or simply the overflow of mad growth), we are reaching now for a zero-sum point where wealthy people have come to believe that to gain anything requires them to take it from someone else. As an example, though Wal-Mart already makes billions in profits, it still fights even tiny increases to the minimum wage aggressively, and to the detriment of our society, effectively.
Grey Fades to Black
Much of the intellectual underpinning for these conclusions comes from the work of historian Morris Berman, cited previously on this blog.
However, if Berman paints a dim picture of our future, Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon paints it black.
Gordon calls himself a “declinist,” positing that the U.S.’ economic growth spurt from the Industrial Revolution through the 1970s was a once-in-a-millenium event not to be repeated. No TV pundit or warrior in the liberal-conservative culture wars, Gordon is an academic economistusing extraordinary scholarship to arrive at the conclusion that the assumption that economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever is simply wrong. America has had its (albeit 200 year) moment and has rolled over the top of the roller coaster hill. As if drawn by gravity, the only path ahead is down.
But the Internet Will Save Us, Right?
Wrong. Gordon is particular answers those who claim the internets represent a second (third, fourth, eighth…) Industrial Revolution. Gordon writes:
The computer and Internet revolution began around 1960 and reached its climax in the dot.com era of the late 1990s, but its main impact on productivity has withered away in the past eight years. Many of the inventions that replaced tedious and repetitive clerical labor by computers happened a long time ago, in the 1970s and 1980s. Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labor productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.
Learn more about Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent (March 2014).
Reviews and Comments on Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan — Available May 2017!
Van Buren returns with a deeply-researched anti-war novel, Hooper’s War, coming May 2017. Set in WWII Japan, Lieutenant Nate Hooper isn’t sure he’ll survive his war. And if he does make it home, he isn’t sure he can survive the peace. He’s done a terrible thing, and struggles to resolve the mistake he made alongside a Japanese soldier, and a Japanese woman who failed to save both men. At stake? Souls.
With allegorical connections to America’s current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reverse chronology telling of Hooper’s War (“Fighting over the covers is better than remembering the empty side of the bed,” Hooper says) turns a loss-of-innocence narrative into a complex tale of moral injury inevitable in societies that go to war. Think The Things They Carried, crossed with Catch-22.
In this alternate-history novel, Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war.
In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late wife. But back in 1946, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto after it’s been firebombed, dealing with the horrors of war and the less-than-humanitarian instincts of his own men. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.
Van Buren presents a bleak picture of a world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation (“Is the morphine for Garner so he stops screaming, or is the morphine for you so you don’t have to hear him screaming?” says a medical officer. “He probably feels better screaming”). Hooper is an engaging protagonist, a prototypical innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role (“The worst words in the English language to me had become ‘What should we do, Lieutenant?’ ”).
Van Buren doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time. An afterword provides context for the book’s alternate version of the war. A complex portrayal of a counterfactual invasion.
— Kirkus Reviews
Peter Van Buren’s Hooper’s War is a powerful anti-war novel of empathy, wit and engaged imagination, vividly depicting war’s commingled devastation and savage beauty. Van Buren portrays the lasting wounds suffered by innocent victims and guilt-ridden soldiers wracked by grave moral injury. As Van Buren writes, “This sh*t doesn’t end when the war does, but only ends when we do.”
–Douglas A. Wissing, journalist and author of Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan and Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban.
This should be required reading for every 18 year-old boy who plays Battlefield in the comfort of their basement. Amidst the abject fear and the necessary delusion and braggadocio of war, Hooper’s War reveals a soldier’s struggle to hold onto his soul. Every scene vibrates with flesh and blood, life and death, right and wrong in an upside-down world. Van Buren brilliantly illuminates the deepest , inner-most thoughts of young men in war. In fearlessly exposing the questions which remain long after soldiers have returned to civilian life, Van Buren carefully unfolds the true human cost of war.
– Linda Hassani, Writer/Director, Dark Angel
Peter Van Buren is already an accomplished non-fiction writer. Now Hooper’s War shows that he’s a master of fiction as well. Whether it’s present-day Hawaii or post-war Japan, Van Buren makes the reader feel like he’s in the room. You will become friends with these characters. But more importantly, Hooper’s War is relevant to our own current political and military struggles. There are parallels to American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and lessons for all of us to learn. Read this book. You’ll be better for it.
— John Kiriakou, Former CIA Officer and author of Doing Time Like a Spy
Van Buren’s writing skills continue to impress, as Hooper’s War gives voice to American and Japanese soldiers as they engaged in bloody combat in the 1940’s. Van Buren is a darn good storyteller, and weaves a fascinating narrative from wartime diaries and present-day recollections, with gritty descriptions of the experiences and inner thinking of the warriors. It grabs you from page one, and doesn’t let go.
– Peter B. Collins, Host, The Peter B. Collins Radio Show
One damn good writer! Peter Van Buren’s searing Hooper’s War is a haunting WWII novel that reveals the darkest secrets about war and the warriors. In weaving a stunningly written tale about the lives of U.S. and Japanese soldiers, it exposes the most raw side of conflict. We see good men turn bad. We see both sides sink into evil and barbarism. Read the book and weep. Better yet, read the book and get active to help build a world without war.
– Medea Benjamin, Co-founder of CODEPINK for Peace
Peter Van Buren has done an interesting thing here; with Hooper’s War, he’s managed to capture the rage, chaos, disorder, but most of all, shame, of the fighting men from our most noble war effort, without apologizing for any of it. Men in extraordinary circumstances often commit themselves to bouts of magical thinking, and Hooper is no exception.
–Brandon Caro, author of Old Silk Road, novel of the Afghan war
Peter Van Buren crafts a raw novel, caustic in tone and sober in its treatment of war and the forever rot that war creates within us.
—Kevin Gosztola, Managing Editor, Shadowproof.com
Hooper’s War is evocative and beautiful, its writing sweeps you along, touches lives and transports you effortlessly on a sometimes poignant, sometimes stark, sometimes obscure journey; that of Hooper himself, attempting to reconcile the deep tragedy and moral ambiguity of war. These are ever-relevant themes and Van Buren’s authentic insight into human nature reveals itself like the prick of a pin. Anyone can recognize the depth of research that has gone into this book, it’s something those who know Van Buren have come to expect from his work – it feels effortless and uniquely enriches each character, bringing them to life in ways that build empathy for the reader, through details or twists from the ordinary to the obscene – fluently evoking the horror of war.’
– Dr. Emma L Briant, Lecturer in Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.
Hooper’s War is a powerful and important novel. It captures how war forever transforms the lives of those involved. During war soldiers are forced to become killers, and, afterwards, they are forced to deal with the moral and psychological costs of their actions. Peter Van Buren’s engaging writing brings the consequences of war to life. And while Hooper’s War is set in World War II Japan, it offers the opportunity to reflect on the implications of the U.S. government’s numerous wars since that time.
– Christopher Coyne, F.A. Harper Professor of Economics, George Mason University
I studied and fell in love in Kyoto. Later I represented the U.S. government at memorial services for the victims of the firebombing of Tokyo. Van Buren’s anti-war classic of Kyoto incinerated like Dresden left me shaken at the choices we make, the choices we seemingly have to make, and all of their bastard sequelae. Van Buren flays with the shrapnel of an alternate history.
— Daniel H. Garrett, former U.S. Diplomat, author of Pieces of the Moon
This memorable work of alternative World War II history depicts in gripping detail the horrors and sufferings of war, reminding us in a powerful way of how destructive violence can be to our humanity.
— John Brown, U.S. Diplomat, (ret.)
A bloody American invasion of Japan; the incineration by firebombing of Kyoto; an unlikely truce between a U.S. lieutenant and a Japanese sergeant. In Van Buren’s imaginative retelling of the end of World War II, we learn about the stubborn horrors of war — and the fragile grace that blooms ever so fleetingly amid the chaos. “The question isn’t so much why Private Garner is screaming,” notes a doctor treating a PTSD casualty. “It’s why we aren’t.” Striking words from a story of searing intensity.
– William Astore, Lt Col, USAF (Ret.), author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism
With its changing points-of-view and reverse timeline, Peter Van Buren’s “Hooper’s War” is a spiritual cousin to the movies “Rashômon” and “Memento”. The book is set in an alternate World War II, in which U.S. forces invade Japan, rather than drop the atomic bomb. With philosophical precision and wit, Van Buren has constructed a literary origami, which unfolds to reveal that the creases and lines of history are determined as much by personal chance as they are big decisions—and that war is as much our doing, as it is our undoing.
—Randy Brown, author of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015)
Hooper’s War is a classic war story of blood and guts spilled in Japan during WWII but with contemporary meanings. Told by both an young American lieutenant and a young Japanese soldier, Van Buren writes of the the inevitable questioning of what wars do to those who fight. “This sh*t doesn’t end when the war does, it only ends when we do.” “Garner is likely to just be insane for the rest of his life, mind torn apart and all that. His body’s in terrific shape, not a scratch. But the question isn’t so much why Private Garner is screaming. It’s why we aren’t, Lieutenant.”
“Besides, Garner went insane because of what he saw in Kyoto. Curing him means I’d have to convince him seeing the burned children he’s shouting about was not a reason to be insane.” These are commentaries echoed seventy-five years later by our young soldiers with PTSD from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
–Ann Wright, US Army Reserve Colonel and former US diplomat.
Reviews and Comments on Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent – Available Now!
As Earl takes an endless bus ride around his hometown of Reeve, Ohio, we witness the downwardly spiraling events of his life as he tries to make sense of how a boom town went bust. It’s the twenty-first century, and the factory that founded and funded this Rust Belt town is gone, taking with it the livelihood and lives of hardworking and hard-drinking men like Earl and his father before him. Men who were duped into bartering their dreams of glory for what would turn out to be the empty promise of a steady wage.
In a device that could well be employed in a Beckett drama, Earl’s mythical bus teems with a constant parade of unearthly visitors from his past—family, friends, and fellow downsized derelicts who, in their unreal way, convey the painful reality that erodes society when the American dream turns into a nightmare. Van Buren turns his keen eye to the shameful treatment of the nation’s unemployed and homeless.
Politicians come and go, but the critical issues tearing at our society do not. In his new book Ghosts of Tom Joad Van Buren turns to the larger themes of social justice and equality, and asks uncomfortable questions about where we are headed. He is no stranger to speaking truth to power, and the critical importance of doing that in a democracy cannot be overestimated. Standing up and saying “This is wrong” is the basis of a free society. The act of doing so must be often practiced, and regularly tested. — Daniel Ellsberg, whistleblower, The Pentagon Papers.
A lyrical, and deeply reported look at America’s decline from the bottom up. Though a work of fiction, Ghosts of Tom Joad is – sadly, and importantly – based on absolute fact. Buy it, read it, think about it. —Janet Reitman, contributing editor, Rolling Stone, author of Inside Scientology: the Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion.
A sober reflection on the United States economy and how it has transformed in the past decades… There’s a “story truth” to what Van Buren writes that is similar to the “story truth” in the classic work of fiction, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien… It is our story. It is America’s story. —Kevin Gosztola, FireDogLake.com
Read this book. It is a compassionate look at the American Dream since 1973 through the eyes of someone whose experience has been more nightmare than dream-like. It is also a cautionary tale – recognize the path that brought us to this pass in order to find a way out of the morass. The references to Grapes of Wrath are well woven into the story and remind us of the need for constant vigilance to prevent exploitation.
But this is not just a political commentary. Van Buren has written a very human story about a man’s life, his expectations and disappointments. Heartbreaking, yet familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the heartland of America over the past thirty years. Every American should read this book. And the wider world as well to understand what makes – and unmakes – the American Dream. — Amazon Review
This book stands on its own as a novel, because the writing is wonderful. But it is – sadly – a cautionary tale for those who refused to understand history. Tom Joad is back, and Van Buren skillfully echoes Steinbeck while at the same time creating a tale of the early 21st century. Belongs on the shelf next to Nickel and Dimed. — Amazon Review
Was Mr. Van Buren informed by John Steinbeck? You bet. Steinbeck was the clarion call of awareness for the Depression-era Oakies, and Van Buren is no less of a mirror and literary translator for an entire generation that has been destroyed by the end of manufacturing as we knew it. — Amazon Review
I was often reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed… Like the referenced Grapes of Wrath, the future is bleak. In the author’s deft hands, the ways of the modern working poor are made clear: pay day loans, rent-to-own, working for healthcare coverage, SNAP benefits barely covering grocery expenses, and minimum wage. I can testify to the trueness of Van Buren’s writing. These lives, though fiction, are real and living among us. These “ghosts” are our neighbors in need of salvation. And for that attention, Van Buren has accomplished much. —The Avid Reader
Ghosts of Tom Joad is a heartbreaking tale of one man against the world, or rather the world against one man. I don’t think you can call it an epic since it takes place almost entirely within a small town in rust-belt Ohio, but it’s definitely raw, gritty, and painful. The narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing his downward spiral into underemployment and homelessness, and the novel that results is heartbreakingly authentic.
Fair warning: this book contains descriptions of sexual activity, physical abuse, and violence. Still, the most frightening part came when I realized that the narrator was being haunted by the ghost of the American dream. —Live to Read, Read to Live
Set against the grim shuttered factories and empty Main Street storefronts of America’s post-industrial heartland, Peter Van Buren’s touching, angry, beautifully crafted debut novel pulls back the veil on the growing underclass that much of our country would prefer not to acknowledge. Charting Midwest everyman Earl’s inexorable slide from retail stock clerk to subsistence-wage day laborer to homelessness, “Ghosts of Tom Joad” is at once a powerfully intimate portrait of a man trying to hold onto his dignity, and an epic, bracing wake-up call for a nation in denial and decline. Like his heroes Steinbeck and Agee before him, the author takes us on an unflinching tour of America’s “broken places,” yet true to his predecessors Van Buren never loses sight of his rough characters’ resilient humanity, their deeply held yearning for the grounding connection of family and community, their stubborn hope for a better life. An urgent, important story and an incredibly necessary book. —James Spione, Academy Award-nominated documentarian, Incident in New Baghdad and Silenced.
Bloody marvelous! —Maine World News Service
An original, nitty-gritty novel… grippingly written fiction, it’s also a powerful portrait of the new American world… Highly recommended. —Tom Englehardt, editor, TomDispatch.com
Peter Van Buren gets it. —Douglas Wissing, author, journalist
This is not a plug for a friend or even an acquaintance. Van Buren and I have never met, never spoken. I am his Facebook “friend,” and will continue to read whatever he writes because his voice is so wise and so necessary. —Steve Weinberg
I know these people and have worked at this level. They are the army of invisibles. Their powerlessness and ours to affect better outcomes for them is stultifying. I call it societal implosion. The American character is not designed to look inwards on itself. —Blog Reader Alex
Every so often I pick up a book to review that not only wakes me up with a slap to the face but also beats me down. The story is very realistic and typical of the environment. I highlighted and noted almost as many passages from this novel as I would from a nonfiction book on an unfamiliar subject… It reads as real life. This book is very well done on so many levels. Even though I left long ago, it is not something I, or anyone else, can run from forever. It is spreading across the country with every business that closes, every job that goes away and is replaced with a part time dead end job…”and you can’t build a nation on the working poor.” — Joseph Spuckler
There is no greater social problem in America today than the growth of income inequality to record levels. While occasionally the issue gains some attention, as with the election of a progressive mayor of New York City, for the most part the poor live lives of quiet desperation out of sight of the media. “The Ghosts of Tom Joad” though a work of fiction, vividly portrays how the plight of the working poor are and should be read by everyone with a social conscience. —Ambassador Dennis Jett (Ret.), Ph.D., Professor of International Affairs, Pennsylvania State University
Haunting and a kick in the gut, Peter Van Buren’s first novel, The Ghosts of Tom Joad, lays bare the brutal and very personal reality of America’s Great Recession. In his first book, We Meant Well, Peter blew the whistle on the catastrophic effects of American policy in Iraq; now Peter turns his necessary and just attention on the effects of American policy at home. Want to understand the true and honest nature of our modern society and the American way of life? Then read The Ghosts of Tom Joad. —Matthew Hoh, Peace and Veterans advocate, former Marine.
The Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is a powerful and provocative tale of the working poor. Although the story is fiction, the themes are anything but. In a lively yet serious manner, Peter Van Buren tackles one of the most important issues of our day—how can a free society deal with the costs associated with creative destruction? The Ghosts of Tom Joad is required reading for all concerned with the future of our country.” —Christopher J. Coyne, F.A. Harper Professor of Economics, George Mason University
I can’t tell you what an impact this book had on me. The writing is beautiful but the story is brutal. I grew up in and around these places and to say it is grim is an understatement. Ghosts captures everything — the human complexity and the profound cultural/economic damages. The story stuck with me long after I stopped reading.
I grew up and later worked in a “Reeve, Ohio.” While experiencing a visceral recognition, Van Buren’s intimate portrait of this dying town made me feel like a stranger peeking in on places many Americans have no idea exist. I will never again drive by the old manufacturing towns of my
youth without wondering about the shadows within, as drawn so mesmerizingly in Van Buren’s relentlessly vivid portrayal. As Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath made a place for the Dust Bowl in our literary canon, Ghosts aims to do the same for the devastating industrial decline of the late-American 20th century. —Kelley Vlahos, The American Conservative
Ghosts of Tom Joad takes a hard, honest look at where millions of Americans are today: living a marginal existence, a no-exit life of grinding poverty. What Peter Van Buren is able to show through his gritty, close-to-the-ground prose, is how capitalism destroys the human spirit, leaving its victims devoid of any purpose in life. Those of us in our sixties and seventies are completely bewildered at where the America of our youth—a very different sort of place from today—went. The answer is contained in the pages of this book: the values of “the market” finally swamped everything else, destroyed any values except those of rapaciousness and self-interest. “I think God owes us an apology,” says the central character of this novel. No, I’d reply; but America certainly does. —Morris Berman, historian, author, The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, and Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline
Growing up in Ohio, I got my first jobs in radio in Port Clinton, Bowling Green and Kenton in the early 1970’s. Each town had a thriving Main Street and at least one family-owned manufacturing operation. The jobs went offshore, and big box malls on the edge of town killed Main Street. Based on his personal experience in dead-end retail jobs, Peter Van Buren captures the downward spiral of middle America, as the workers who’ve been sacrificed for corporate profits watch their children flounder in minimum wage jobs and fight to survive. This is a powerful novel that reflects the desperate reality that many Americans face daily. –Peter B. Collins, The Peter B. Collins Show
Have and have-nots have always existed. The Ghosts of Tom Joad brings this conflict so often touched upon in literature into a modern day, down-turned economy. Riveted with a bit of nostalgia for the rosier 70s and 80s, the story manages to find humor in an otherwise dismal life. When you choose to ride this bus with Earl, you’ll find yourself reminiscing with him, rooting for him, and yearning for the release he strives to find. — Lisa Ehrle, Teacher-Librarian, Aurora, Colorado
Good stuff. I found the voice and voices engaging, interesting, and compelling. Images and phrases stuck until well after I’d read the work. I often engage myself with themes of middle-class, middle-American struggle, so things like this really resonated with me. The Korean war stuff felt authentic. The snowball-fight / snow-angels motif was nicely threaded throughout the work, and paid-off well. Bottom line: It’s accessible and compelling, a mix of “Canterbury Tales” meets “Grapes of Wrath” meets “American Beauty.” —Charlie Sherpa, Military Blogger, Red Bull Rising
In Ghosts of Tom Joad, Peter Van Buren invokes his powerful story-telling gifts to portray a job-starved Ohio community. This gripping, contemporary novel in the tradition of Grapes of Wrath is more real than real – and a worthy successor to Van Buren’s reporting about Iraq in his courageous We Meant Well. —Andrew Kreig, Director, Justice Integrity Project, author, Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters.
In Peter Van Buren’s Ghosts of Tom Joad, things do not always look better in the morning. In this autopsy of the new depression, you turn a page and keep reading hoping the story’s left behind people catch up… because one way or another, they’re us. —Diplopundit
Van Buren is passionate about the truth, and his new book Ghosts of Tom Joad is a masterpiece, a must-read about the decline of our economy and social structure, an inspirational story showing how one man and one nation can claw its way back to greatness. —Kathryn Milofsky, Producer Reporter ITV (UK) /Executive Producer The Brian Oxman Show (US)
Peter Van Buren has an amazing ability to draw the reader into his stories. That the author of the definitive work on the debacle of our post-war reconstruction of Iraq has now set his sights on the debacle of our post-industrial America makes perfect sense. Many of the actors are the same, with the same intent. —Daniel McAdams, Ron Paul Institute
A twenty-first century Grapes of Wrath, this memorable volume documents in a concrete, personal, often moving way the despair among many in America today due to economic and family hardships. In the words of its fictional but all too real narrator — Earl, from a rust-belt small Ohio town, unable get a permanent job or start a family — “they took away the factory, but left the people;” “this ain’t a story, it’s an autopsy.” —John H. Brown, Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies, Georgetown University
At the State Department Peter Van Buren was a pioneer blowing the whistle in defense of human rights by challenging torture. In this novel he blows the whistle in defense of America’s roots by challenging the dehumanizing consequences when big business abandoned the Rust Belt in Ohio. This tale of a mythical Earl’s relentless quest for an American dream that has become a mirage is worthy of the voices that inspired it, from Woody Guthrie to John Steinbeck to Bruce Springsteen. —Tom Devine, Legal Director, Government Accountability Project
We Meant Well
We Meant Well reminds me in its insanity of Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22 and my own experiences in Vietnam. Recommend We Meant Well, a darkly funny inside look at Iraq War from State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren. —Oliver Stone, Director
One diplomat’s darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and the State Department have done — or tried to do — since the invasion of Iraq. The title says it all: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People —Steven Myers, New York Times
When it comes to our own missteps in the region, you won’t find a more shocking, saddening—and yes, hilarious—account than Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, the State Department insider’s firsthand account of how the U.S. is bungling the reconstruction of Iraq with symbolic rather than substantive efforts to provide relief (Van Buren’s image of the U.S. outfitting a local school with computers—rather than electricity—is unforgettable). —Publisher’s Weekly, early review
In this shocking and darkly hilarious exposé of the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq, former State Department team leader Van Buren describes the tragicomedy that has been American efforts at nation building, marked by bizarre decisions and wrongheaded priorities.
A story of the American ambassador and his lawn elegantly evokes the disconnect between American intention and Iraqi suffering: despite blistering heat, seed-stealing birds, and the astronomical cost of water, the ambassador demanded–and achieved–an emerald green garden within the embassy walls. “We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look,” Van Buren writes.
With lyrical prose and biting wit, this book reveals the devastating arrogance of imperial ambition and folly. –Publisher’s Weekly, later review
If Joseph Heller’s war began in 2004 instead of 1944, this would be the book entitled Catch-22. Once I picked up We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I could not put the book down. I could not believe so much that appears to be fictional satire could instead relate actual events. Very highly recommended. —Seattle Public Intelligencer
I’ve read just about every memoir out of Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, military or otherwise, and this stands as one of the best — certainly one of the most self-aware and best written. —Garrett M. Graff, Editor, Washingtonian
Despite the risks of such frankness for Van Buren—he is currently the subject of a State Department investigation—he writes with the sardonic candor of a man too intent on recounting the absurdities he has witnessed to worry about what he has to lose. — The Nation
Peter Van Buren is reviled by some, celebrated by others. Earlier this autumn, he published what some angry diplomats consider a piss-and-tell book, a memoir of his time leading an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq. In fact, one might argue that Van Buren has succeeded in writing a most accessible and plain-spoken book about America’s efforts in Afghanistan. It just happens to be about Iraq.
Snarky, but true. And not without a heart. No matter how sharp-tongued and bushy-tailed he gets, he doesn’t hesitate to let his guard down, and to document the transcendent, disguised as the mundane. –Red Bull Rising
Peter Van Buren, a Foreign Service Officer, spent a year at two forward operating bases in Iraq helping to “reconstruct” that country. With its ironic title, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, his work, a remarkable deconstruction of that effort and more generally of the debacle of American-style armed “nation-building,” will be a classic in the annals of anti-interventionism. He’s also a natural as a writer. Think of him as the State Department’s Michael Herr, though in its first rave reviews his book is being compared to Joseph Heller’s classic World War II novel Catch-22. —TomDispatch
Now, a handful of wars later, comes We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, by a veteran State Department officer who spent a year working in the black hole of the notoriously inept, $63 billion Iraqi reconstruction program.
If this ain’t Catch-22, it’s awfully close. For sure, it’s not a novel, but as they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
But like Catch-22, We Meant Well is held together by Van Buren’s hilariously rendered absurdities, from his encounters with self-important Iraqi and American officials and their fictitious reconstruction projects to the U.S. command’s annual — which is to say, once a year– distribution of a single can of beer to the troops. I laughed ’til I cried. But I think that was the point. –Jeff Stein, SpyTalk
Laugh-out-loud stories about how the United States failed to rebuild Iraq… One of the rare, completely satisfying results of the expensive debacle in Iraq. —Kirkus Reviews, “starred.” Kirkus Reviews also named We Meant Well one of its top non-fiction titles of 2011.
A foreign service officer exposes the truth about American aid to Iraq, using satire, irony and sometimes laugh-out-loud humor to convey grim reality. –Kansas City Star. The Star also named We Meant Well one of the top 100 Books of 2011.
Although not previously a professional writer, Van Buren writes superbly. Every page of his presumably true memoir is laugh-out-loud funny — funny, that is, if readers don’t mind guffawing at expensive so-called expert consultants who had never been to Iraq and did not speak the local language, military commanders who issued idiotic orders almost without exception and the waste of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars annually.
In more than 250 pages of text, Van Buren can think of almost no expenditure that made sense or helped with the long-term goal of stabilizing Iraq and moving it toward American-style democracy. Read it and weep, or laugh — or probably both. —Dallas Morning News
In his unsparing account of one year on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, Van Buren describes how the State Department, in concert with the U.S. military, threw billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money away through waste, fraud, and abuse and failed to help the Iraq people maintain the most basic necessities, like clean water, health care, and sewage, despite all the funding and promises to the contrary. Describing his time in Iraq the way he did breaks all protocol of the typically silent — and compliant — Foreign Service officer. —Antiwar.com
A burn-his-bridges (book by a) foreign service officer. This is a scathing, gallows humor look at a massif of missteps – my favorite is the $3 million order for mobile water-purification units, which didn’t work on Iraq’s highly saline water. Van Buren is merciless: “We were the ones who famously helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck.’’ —Boston Globe. The Globe also choose We Meant Well as one of the six book about the Iraq War to read.
A book Robert Altman might have loved. I’m about to praise a book by a first time author whose work reads as if he simply wrote down what happened right in front of his eyes, one thing after another, yet who has give us something riveting and true and possibly important, a potential classic. Van Buren’s willingness to tell what, preposterously, really happened, keeps the reader on the line. He is angry, and he’s bitter, but he also has a gift for black humor, and comes across as decent guy who is trying to be fair. –The Progressive Reader
Checkbook Diplomacy. In shopping for hearts and minds in Iraq, the State Department made some bizarre impulse purchases. –Foreign Policy
I very much liked US State Department veteran Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Insightful, disturbing, and at times darkly funny, I was constantly reminded of Robert Fisks’s poignant observation that it seems the only thing we ever learn is that we never learn. –Open Canada
Van Buren’s prose is accessible, colloquial, somewhat macho, with sustained skepticism and moments of humor. –Washington Post
Van Buren alternates engaging but ultimately depressing chapters about the many ways reconstructing Iraq has failed with vignettes about the effort’s cast of characters – private contractors, Army brass, diplomats and spies, some arrogant, some lonely, some homesick. The reader unquestionably needs the respite, but the characters who provide comic relief in a chronicle of relentless failure in fact create the very failure we need to escape.
This eye for meaningful details, combined with Van Buren’s plain-spoken storytelling, is what makes the book work. He could tell contractors on sight, he says, because they all wore clothing with a plethora of pockets. “If you filled all the pockets, you wouldn’t be able to climb stairs.” From the popularity of line-itemed programs for widows to the Green Zone’s plentiful cargo pants, Van Buren identifies the styles of our war – and demands we think about its substance. –Christian Science Monitor
Reality so rich it stuns. A time capsule, priceless deep insights into occupation at its worst. Six Stars out of Five and Beyond– Open Heart Surgery on a Corrupt Ignorant Government. –Public Intelligence Blog
For those of us old enough to remember Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which chronicled the absurdities of US military life during World War II… Van Buren’s We Meant Well should be seen in a similar vein. Hilarious, horrifying and heart-wrenching. –Whirled View
A State Department insider reveals what he believes to be costly and misguided efforts by American forces to reconstruct Iraq. –National Public Radio
A first-hand account of the faltering and often misguided attempts at reconstruction in Iraq undertaken by the U.S. government. –Democracy Now
An informative, amusing and horrifying account of the disposition of the $172 billion that the United States, Iraq itself involuntarily and other countries provided for Iraq reconstruction. what Mr. Van Buren writes really becomes amusing — or shocking, depending on how sensitive one is to seeing U.S. taxpayer dollars seep into the Mesopotamian sand. – Former US Ambassador Dan Simpson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 2009 and 2010, Van Buren points out, suicide caused more deaths among the U.S. military than combat. While often depressed during his tour and missing his family “terribly,” the very rational Van Buren opted, thank God, for staying alive, keeping sane by scrupulously observing the situation around him. The result is this black-humor book, personal and often very funny, which recounts, from an “on the ground” perspective, the pathetic and tragic American attempt to remake the cradle of civilization. –American Diplomacy
Peter Van Buren’s sensible, funny, and ultimately sad portrait of failed nation-building will need to be resurrected and read and re-read, especially in our schools and media offices, the latter because so many publications and TV commentators were cheerleaders for the invasion. –Spero Forum
We Meant Well is an insider account of the civilian side of the surge in Iraq. The challenges and failures should be lessons for Afghanistan. –Afghanistan101
Van Buren also describes in great detail what life was like for the American military in Iraq, the monotony of base life enlivened by brief forays into heightened alertness and even terror. In some ways, this book is terribly depressing, redeemed by Van Buren’s sardonic style and all-around snarkiness. There were moments I laughed out loud. –5MinutesforBooks.com
Learning from one’s mistakes is one of life’s most important skills. And if we are really serious about learning the mistakes of nation building in Iraq, Peter Van Buren’s book should be required reading not just for decision makers but for everyone heading to those PRT gigs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan and where ever else it is we are conducting reconstruction and stabilization efforts these days.
In addition to being an engaging storyteller, the author was smart enough not to fill his book with too much government jargon and acronyms that you need a dictionary just to read it. People back home, if they’d bother to pick up the book will find it a fast read. It is also a book that will be a helpful addition to our understanding of what is wrong in Iraq, provided that we care and want to know. For the plenty squeezed and suffering American taxpayers, this would be a hard book to read. —Diplopundit
Billed as bitingly funny, though I’m not sure I’m laughing; an important book from someone who was there. – Library Journal
We Meant Well, both title and concept, is how pro-war policymakers and pundits rationalized the bloodshed and chaos by doing good things for post-Saddam Iraqis. Largely ignorant of Iraq’s history, culture, and language, Washington’s elite foreign policy circles actually believed the con men and living room warriors who conjured up visions of WMDs and of spreading America’s economic empire by war and thereby transforming the country into a fair and open society. — History News Network
Peter Van Buren’s searing first-hand testimony is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the true depths of the disaster we created in Iraq. With startling candor and mordant wit, Van Buren lays it all out there: the colossal waste and fraud, the clueless hubris, the banal bureaucratic ineptitude of our efforts to “reconstruct” a country with pet projects and plans that have little chance of success in a land where the underlying institutions and infrastructure have been so thoroughly destroyed. A fascinating, heartbreaking, hilarious and moving account of our American Empire at work. — James Spione, Director, Academy Award-nominated “Incident in New Baghdad”
A great read to see the real story of what our country has done in Iraq. It’s not a blame book, but a book without rose-colored glasses. — Shelfari.com
To the extent that Peter Van Buren’s book brings to light wasteful, ineffective and counterproductive undertakings by the U.S. government in Iraq, it must be regarded as a public service. Surely even the most ardent supporters of ousting Saddam Hussein and establishing democracy in that country would want to know whether we are actually achieving our government’s stated objectives — and if not, why not? Kudos to Mr. Van Buren for having the courage to call it as he saw it. — Amazon.com reader
Long after the self-serving memoirs of people named Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld are consigned to some landfill, this unsparing and very funny chronicle will remain on the short list of books essential to understanding America’s Iraq War. Here is nation-building as it looks from the inside—waste, folly, and sheer silliness included. —Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War
The road to Hell is paved with taxpayer dollars in Peter Van Buren’s account of a misspent year rebuilding Iraq. Abrasive, honest and funny, We Meant Well is an insider’s account of life behind blast walls at the height of the surge. —Nathan Hodge, author of Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders
We Meant Well is a must-read, first-hand account of our disastrous occupation of Iraq. Its lively writing style will appeal to a wide audience. —Congressman Dr. Ron Paul