Book reviews: policy, economy, society

Updated July 23, 1997



Review date: July 23, 1997
Post-Capitalist Society by Peter F. Drucker.

Here were my first impressions, formed after reading 20 pages or so:

Ha ha. Many factual errors in the opening pages. (Communism got its start by 1816, huh?) Many broad generalizations and catch-phrases. Just who is this guy trying to fool? Oh, his audience is all those management types who haven't had the time to get properly informed because they've been so busy chasing profits. I see. And these people want to run the world? Egads. Remember, these people and their way of thinking have given us our present Dilbert landscape.

[Don't get me wrong. Making a profit is often good and moral. But in the right context and over many time periods.]
Then again, Drucker says some sensible, though downright obvious, things about the current change in economies. I guess those management types need to be told these things by someone they'll listen to. So be it. But keep thine history books at hand, folks, because he plays fast and loose with the facts.

A far better book to read would be Jane Jacobs' Systems of Survival (review pending).

Well, I stand by my first impressions. While reading this book, I often got the sense that Peter Drucker has an axe to grind, especially regarding taxes and tax policy. Many of his views seem like pontification from way above the fray of the every day workings of the economy. In particular, he always seems to take the birds-eye view of organizations. The details get lost. But both God and the devil are in the details.

The whole orientation of the book bothers me. He argues that we live in a time fundamentally different from all previous time because the owners of major capital are no longer the managers of capital: pension funds are major pools of capital in the economy, and corporations are controlled by professional managers. In that sense we do live in a post-capitalist society, but it would be more precise to say our society is no longer dominated by a small number of capitalists. But this is not an unprecedented situation. It does not require radical action, as his premise suggests. (Cf: Notice that with this bull market we are again seeing headlines like ``Is the business cycle dead?'' Uh, no. But these short memories are cut from the same cloth.)

As I said, Drucker does say some sensible things. But he may as well have written the book by throwing darts. I would beware of following his prescriptions because his flawed reasoning shows he really doesn't understand the issues. Never did I feel that something he wrote had ``the ring of truth.''

The book is filled with non-sequiturs. In particular, Peter Drucker shows incredible flashes of innumeracy. They make Post-Capitalist Society darned frustrating reading for a trained critical thinker. Beware.

What to read instead? Anything by Jane Jacobs.

The Wealthy Banker's Wife: the Assault on Equality in Canada, by Linda McQuaig. This extended essay lays out the argument that means-tested or two-tiered social programs is a bad idea, and that the Canadian public is being hoodwinked into getting them by those who compare Canada to the United States instead of to the rest of the first world, primarily western Europe -- that the U.S. is an oddball case, which pretty clearly shouldn't be emulated on social policy issues.

This book is concise, although some may argue it's a bit thin. See also her excellent follow-on, Shooting the Hippo.

Review date: 1995
Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian by Richard Gwynn.

This is a current best-seller (and was on my Christmas list) about the nationhood of Canada. Richard Gwynn just seems to make so much sense in his columns for the Toronto Star, so I thought I'd give him a look in book-length format.

The basic argument is this: the "Rest of Canada" is really English Canada, but it has lost the nerve to call itself that. Gwynn celebrates the origins of equality and tolerance in the roots of English culture. He then goes on to argue that official multiculturalism has outgrown its usefulness, as it has now given rise to a "rights frenzy" based on identity politics, and the fact that many people feel threatened by this trend. He also discusses the Quebec situation (the book was finished on the eve of the 1995 referendum) and the increasing gap between rich and poor.

He makes the case for a certain vague plan of action to save Canada from simply evaporating. Unfortunately, a few weeks after reading the book, I've already forgotten that plan. (I'm trying to remember if it's basically this: stick with small L liberal values, and scrap official multiculturalism). Ho hum. Altogether, it's not a very memorable book. Alas. I was disappointed, and at times offended.

The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone. Really cool. I never thought a book about ancient philosophers could be so alive. It really took those ancients off their pedestal: it showed them to be quite conniving, political, and ego-centric. It's nice to see an antidote to all that white-stone veneer come crashing down. The book really is as much about the political and cultural foundation for our values of free speech, and the ongoing conflict between the individual's right to free speech and the well-being of the greater community. This book is a worthwhile read.
Shooting the Hippo by Linda McQuaig. I started reading this May 13, 1995. It's a fascinating look at how the media, politicians, and the rich have swindled us into believing certain things about the debt, deficit, social spending, and what we should do about them. It gives a coherent view of what has gone wrong over the last 15 years in this country, and suggests a way out of the mess. I finished reading it May 20, 1995. Definitely recommended.

Waiting to be read

There are two books that I'm waiting to read about the role of science with respect to war. The first is Modern Arms and Free Men: A discussion of the role of science in preserving democracy by Vannevar Bush (who happened to be the science advisor to both Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman). It was written in 1949 during the turmoil at the start of the Cold War. It's "old" and I can guess its thesis, but I still think the issues are important today. (Don't worry, I've also got Noam Chomsky's Deterring Democracy and Manufacturing Consent.) The second is Tongues of Conscience: war and the scientists' dilemma by R.W. Reid. For a TV introduction into these issues, see the Star Trek: Voyager episode Jetrel, which aired in Toronto on May 15, 1995. Also, see the popular movie Fat Man and Little Boy for some background into how the scientists of the Manhattan Project dealt with these issues.
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