Although I had some books started in May and June, I didn’t complete any (shame on me) so I decided to roll three months into one post.
Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar
This seems like a very important book for our times. Rana Foroohar, “The Curious Capitalist” columnist in Time Magazine, examines the effects of modern finance on the overall American economy. Let’s just say, it is not a pretty picture if you are not a part of the 1%.
Mitt Romney, now infamously, alluded in an undercover video to rich donors that 47% of the population were “takers” (IE dependent on government services) versus the other 53% were “makers”. Foroohar turns that controversial phrase on its head and declares Wall Street financers to be the takers against ordinary main street Americans working as makers.
Through a well-researched book that is challenging but never too complex for an ordinary, non-expert to understand, she lays out a compelling case for how Wall Street, banks, lobbyists and politicians are screwing us over. Notable, however, is Foroohar never uses inflammatory language that other lesser writers would use. Her writing style is extremely matter of fact and level-headed without venturing into annoying populism.
One of the statistics she throws out in her work is that finance (stock trading and therefore money as a theoretical concept) takes up 25% of our economy but only creates 4% of the jobs. Now we know why trickle down (or supply side) economics is not working. Money being exchanged for goods and services, in many ways, is being crowded out by the expansion of finance which tends to enrich people at the top and leave large portions of our society out of the elitist loop. Hedge fund managers are doing well and their wealthier clients but not so much the rest of America.
A case she brings up in the book is none other then Robert McNamara when he was hired to drastically change the Ford Motor Company. An accountant by training, McNamara came into a company hemorrhaging $9 million dollars a month. He developed complex financial metrics to look at product viability. Every dollar spent in every facet of the business had to be justified. McNamara cut back on research and development (R&D).
Foroohar brings up this case (and McNamara’s decisions certainly make business sense from a certain vantage point) to discuss the falling investment in many large corporations R&D departments. A large corporation, according to Foroohar, can reach a certain point where they are generating enough revenue that the larger corporation plays it safe and focuses exclusively on decisions that will reward shareholders. R&D which employs inventors and engineers suffers and this disrupts the capitalist system to an extent.
To be sure, Foroohar isn’t totally against finance. Her argument is mainly that it has become too big and is crowding out other economic factors in our country which would generate more wage growth for main street Americans. As Warren Buffett once told her: “You’ve now got a body of people who’ve decided they’d rather go to the casino than the restaurant [of capitalism].”
When the end rolls around, I’m not convinced of Foroohar’s prescriptions for fixing the system. They seemed wildly idealistic to me such as making Wall Street financiers take a hippocratic oath like doctors do. Does anyone really believe that some of the sharks at the top of our economy will give a shit about an oath?
That being said, I don’t want to dismiss the rest of her work because it is well-written and extremely important in our day and age. Foroohar is an expert at diagnosing the problem and sounding the alarm bells in a rational fashion. She just didn’t have a persuasive and comprehensive case to fix the whole system.
Lester Lauding Level (LLL): 4 (out of 5)
“Today financial capitalism is fraught with special interests, corporate monopolies, and an opacity that would have boggled (Adam) Smith’s mind. Let me be clear: despite my criticism of our existing model of financial capitalism, this book isn’t anticapitalist. I am not in favor of a planned economy or a turn away from a market system. I simply don’t think that the system we have now is a properly functioning market system.”
Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation Edited by J. Daryl Charles
Written in point and counterpoint fashion, this important work demonstrates the diversity of opinion among Evangelical (Protestant) scholars when the subject is interpreting Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I imagine that if one asked an average person on the street what an Evangelical believes about Genesis 1 and 2 (therefore, the creation account), they would probably perceive them as literal, 24 hour day creationists and potentially suggest that they believed the earth was 6,000 or so years old. This work shows some considerable diversity in the realm of Evangelical scholarship.
J. Daryl Charles edited the book which features prominent thinkers: Richard Averbeck, Todd Beall, John Collins, Tremper Longman, John Walton and some others. Each scholar gets space to articulate his views about Genesis 1-2 and then the others weigh in with rebuttals. Virtually all of the authors acknowledge that the writing of Genesis 1 and 2 was inspired as a rebuttal against Ancient Near Eastern religions. In other words, they postulate that Genesis was written to correct the record (so to speak) and argue for the true God. I preached a sermon on this very idea earlier this year.
The guy who strays the most from the interpretation as a rebuttal is Todd Beall who is a 7 day creationist and takes Genesis 1 and 2 as a purely historical account. While I disagree with Beall (and the other scholars do as well), his case is certainly arguable from the text and he is very well studied on the passages of Scripture.
Most impressive to me was Tremper Longman who focuses on the question of, within the historical context that the beginning of Genesis was written, what exactly is the text teaching? What did it mean to the people who wrote down this account who had no knowledge of Charles Darwin? I had been impressed before with Longman’s scholarship on Ecclesiastes and probably will seek out more books by him.
John Walton is an accomplished scholar as well and his contribution, while persuasively argued, seems a little far out there to me. Of course, he views reading Genesis 1-2 as ancient cosmology but ties in the creation accounts to the Israel temple. When God rested on the seventh day, he argues this was common in that time to view a god anthropomorphically as resting in the temple. Interesting reasoning but the conclusion seemed a little ways out from how I interpret the text.
All in all, for anyone interested in the opening chapters of the Bible, I would highly recommend this book that shows some of the diversity of opinion even within Evangelical scholarship (which is pretty narrow compared with the breadth of Christian thought). The options are not just young earth creationism, theistic evolution or creationism but an old universe. Thousands of years after Genesis was written, the inspired account still speaks to us as we wrestle to interpret it’s deep truths and meaning.
Lester Lauding Level: 4 (out of 5)
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
The more I read about Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans and the further from the mammoth tragedy we get, I get more overwhelmed regarding the sheer scale of this storm. Devastating and utterly destructive to a historic American city and it’s residents who were failed by layer upon layer of government fiascos.
Investigative journalist and New York Times correspondent Sheri Fink has us view the storm from the perspective of Memorial Medical Center in Louisiana. Fink had received the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 report (published by ProPublica and the New York Times) on this subject. Fashioning the material and expanding the reports led to this book.
As the flood waters rose and looting plagued the city in late August 2005, the staff at Memorial as well as a separate unit (run by a for profit corporation) were trapped inside a hospital caring for patients in impossible circumstances. In post-9/11 America, many hospitals were prepared for terrorist attacks but not for massive hurricanes and their insidious aftermaths.
The power grid failed which invited a diesel generator to give partial electricity. The toilets overflowed emitting an unrelenting stench. Workers at the hospital broke windows to help circulate air and heard the fruits of the looting that was happening all around their city. Gunshots rang through the air.
The staff of the hospital worked to care for these patients in the most unimaginable situations. 244 patients were at the hospital including stabbing victims. The first half of the book covers this story from August 28, 2005 through September 1, 2005 when the patients were finally evacuated. What was realized in the aftermath of all of this is where the book takes an exceedingly dark turn.
45 patients had died during the storm. Forsenic investigators found 23 bodies had elevated levels of morphine. They judged that 20 people in the hospital had been the victims of homicide. Authorities began an investigation and eventually charged Dr. Anna Pou, Cheri Landry, and Lori Budo with second-degree murder for administering lethal doses of morphine to the deceased patients. The charges were eventually dropped and a grand jury decided not to indict Dr. Pou. Obviously, this did not stop the rabble of cable news talking heads for months.
Fink writes in a gripping and harrowing voice that details this tragic situation with a reporters detachment. There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” here. “Five Days at Memorial” tells of people in an excruciatingly difficult situation. The decisions of the doctor and nurses are not glamourized but the question is still raised: what if you were in that situation? What if you had limited supplies and you did not know when the storm was going to let up? Or when a rescue would come? There are patients that are judged to be dying and beyond help. There are also patients who can be helped with the limited supplies. How does the Hippocratic oath apply to this situation?
As a Christian, I’m fiercely against euthanasia and think that the practice of intentionally ending someone’s life should be against every ethical code that medical professions operate under. Admittedly, this is an extreme situation and Fink brings out in compelling fashion the ethical and moral landmines even referencing how the Christian faith approaches this issue.
The first half of the book deals with the terrifying storm and the second half, the fallout of the legal and ethical ramifications of what happened to those 20 patients. Through the entire work, Fink demonstrates that she is a top tier writer almost born to cover subject matter like this. While working hard to avoid taking sides, she also engages the reader in all of the sweltering emotions that arose out of this historic storm. “Five Days at Memorial” comes as highly recommended reading.
Lester Lauding Level: 4.5 (out of 5)
“Life and death in the critical first hours of a calamity typically hinged on the preparedness, resources, and abilities of those in the affected community with the power to help themselves and others in their vicinity. Those who did better were those who didn’t wait idly for help to arrive. In the end, with systems crashing and failing, what mattered most and had the greatest immediate effects were the actions and decisions made in the midst of a crisis by individuals.”
“Emergencies are crucibles that contain and reveal the daily, slower-burning problems of medicine and beyond—our vulnerabilities; our trouble grappling with uncertainty, how we die, how we prioritize and divide what is most precious and vital and limited; even our biases and blindnesses.”
“Concepts of triage and medical rationing are a barometer of how those in power in a society value human life.”
“Rather than thinking about exceptional moral rules for exceptional moral situations,” Harvard’s Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote, “we should almost always see exceptional moral situations as opportunities for us to show exceptionally deep commitment to our deepest moral values.”
“Gunshots assumed to have been aimed at rescuers may have been gunshots aimed, however misguidedly, at alerting those rescuers to the presence of desperate survivors.”