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Journal: Book Review: David Barash & Charles Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (2nd e

Journal by boombaard

The book's blurb states the authors "present an unbiased look at issues related to peace and conflict studies to assist readers in forming personal and social opinions 'based on fact'". While I'm quite aware of the fact that blurb writers tend towards hyperbole, the authors certainly seem to care little for, at least, verifiable facts, as the book is entirely devoid of references, apart from those required for strict quotations; I've found less than a dozen mentions of researchers' names, both from their own and other fields (e.g., psychology, sociology) from which research is referenced. That this is even allowed puzzles me to no end; furthermore, there is not even a general bibliography of material used as background for writing this book.
The book is written in a quasi-narrative style, and is, as a consequence, sadly replete with sections that feel highly anecdotal in nature, a feeling hard to erase because the authors refuse to reference the social science research they're apparently trying to include. This, along with their somewhat opinionated writing style, only helps to make me more sceptical of whatever information they're presenting, and convinced me that apparently they don't think (methodical/verifiable) research should play a role in this field.
The authors are a psychologist/psychoanalyst/'philosopher' and an evolutionary biologist, both turned "peace researcher", and sadly, this is rather noticeable in their treatment of most other areas of research, especially when they use 'historical' examples to prove or support a point they're making: events are often presented without describing the relevant context, characterized so generally that there really is no point in referencing it at all, or sometimes just flat-out wrong.

One example of information that falls into this last category is found when they state that "the defeat of the Armada in 1588 marked the end of Spain as a global power." (p.186) The sailing of the "Armada" really constituted only the first attempt to conquer England, so that, while you might call it the "beginning of the end", it certainly didn't result in the instant oblivion of the Spanish empire.
While this could be seen as a minor problem if it was the exception, the issue I have with it is that they refer to research in lots of different areas of study, apparently all relevant to "peace and conflict studies", and yet, they apparently don't care enough to do even the most basic research before writing a book on it. To me, this only suggests that not even they take their own field seriously.
Their use of historical examples is similarly problematic when, in another part of the book, they ask the question whether population increases can be correlated with increased occurrence of wars, at which point they 'cite' as evidence the 100 years war as "a war that went on during the Black Plague". The problem with this, of course, is that the Plague arrived at least a decade after the (first phase of the) 100-years war had broken out. (p. 198) As such, their example is absolutely useless, especially because the 100-years war was a kind of familial feud over succession with enormous pauses, whereas more recent wars have generally been shorter, and more intense, which all seem relevant considerations to me, but apparently not to the authors.
They also more than once reference "popular"/recent events without being very clear about what they're referring to specifically, which to me makes these insertions seem more like glib remarks or insider jokes than serious points they're making, which can rather confusing at times, especially when they extrapolate from anecdotes or single cases to trends. While this may sometimes lead to valid insights, it is not the way to do scientific research. (One example of this is when they allude to the YUKOS/Chodorkovsky affair. I personally don't know if Russia has done things like that before, but the reference seemed rather pointless without further explanation.)
The text also includes a discussion of Freudian/"psychoanalytic" motivation theories, which, in my opinion, should not have been included in a book printed in 2009. It was probably included in part because some researchers still take psychoanalysis seriously, but the biggest problem I have with the section is that they do not really refute this line of argument.

Now, another big issue I have with the book relates to their writing style. In order to demonstrate what I mean by this, consider the following passage:

"The role of individual leaders may well have been unduly glamorized, and decision makers often receive credit - and blame - they do not entirely deserve. Sometimes, leaders represent the culmination of currents within their societies, and they may catalyse other events. Nonetheless, people such as Alexander the Great, Genghis khan, Charlemagne, Joan of arc, Napoleon, Bismarck, Hitler, Stalin, de Gaulle, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, and G. W. Bush, have acted as lightning rods for popular discontent, and, often, as precipitators of war. Less often have leaders of this ilk achieved renown as peacemakers." (p.171)

There are multiple number of problems with this passage: First off, what's with the banalities? "they may catalyse other events?" This book says it will explain stuff relevant to understanding why wars and peaces happen. However, you can't really explain anything if you're only thinking in vague generalities like "leaders may or may not play a role, but we're not really sure if too much attention has been paid to their role in the past, so, like... [shit, I've lost my train of thought. Oh, well, let's just start writing the next paragraph:]".
Secondly, what kind of logic/criterion was used to assemble this list? Joan of Arc, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan seem like fairly distinct and different figures, living in different times, leading or living amongst different peoples who experienced different problems. And yet, the authors seem to imply that somehow all of the mentioned "strong leaders" were "lightning rods for [some sort of otherwise unspecified:] popular discontent", and further that leaders of "this ilk" were relatively uninterested in making "peace".
One -- fairly obvious -- reason why none of these people were known as peacemakers was because they didn't insert any peacemakers into this list. Seriously, what connects Genghis Khan to Joan of Arc, De Gaulle and Charlemagne? They're not even all war starters, during the time of Charlemagne there wasn't even an empire yet, and Joan of Arc didn't start the 100years war. So what does it mean to talk about people of "their ilk"?
Thirdly, and more profoundly, as the authors themselves have argued in different sections of this book, peace is not always a rational choice, nor is war necessarily horrendously "bad", let alone "evil". Should Joan of Arc have chosen not to fight, and let France be ruled by England? Should Alexander have stayed home and let the Persians take over Greece some time down the road? I haven't the faintest why the authors think the answer to these questions are obvious, yet they never even bother saying whether this is their own hypothesis, or whether someone else has suggested we view Alexander or Genghis Khan as "lightning rods" for "public discontent", nor do they explain why it is relevant to worry about the "ilk" of the leaders. I have no problem with the suggestion that it is possible for leaders to lead people in a certain direction, but what does all the other stuff have to do with that statement being true or not?
Now, I'm fine with writers using anecdotes, even slightly unfair ones, but presenting tendentious remarks like that as though they're deep insights worth pondering seems trite at best, and not at all appropriate for a putatively academic text. One doesn't read a work like this to be entertained or overawed, one reads this because one expects a rigorous if not exhaustive analysis of the relevant factors at play.
At the bottom of the page we find another, rather odd statement, with which they are apparently trying to tell us something: "many leaders may be moved by the desire to go down in history as peacemakers." (ibid.) Now, one of the key "problems" with "war" is that it sometimes can be advisable, or even required (to ensure your group's survival) to go to war. War is not necessarily evil, and, as such, it is only politically 'good' for you to 'go down in history as a peacemaker' when there is popular support for such a move; yet they seem to think it 'obvious' that every population would prefer this. But this explanation is never considered.

Furthermore, their economic commentary is downright ridiculous:

"governments typically obtain military forces by paying for them."
[...:]
"Military spending is perhaps the most inflationary way for a government to spend money. By using up major resources without producing consumable goods, military spending reduces supply while also increasing demand for raw materials, thereby contributing doubly to inflation. Moreover, costs tend to rise yet further when the supply of money and credit increases without corresponding increases in productivity." (p.210)

I have, quite honestly, absolutely no idea what they're trying to tell me here. I included the first line only to show you how lazy their editors were, but if we look at the second line, they seem to be saying something about credit simultaneously in- and decreasing, and that money, while being spent, is not received by anyone. Yet earlier, they told the readers about how Haliburton made a killing providing services to the government.
I haven't a clue how I should combine those two facts, and I'm equally unsure what to make of their suggestion that money spent on capital intensive goods causes more inflation than money spent otherwise. Why do these statements not deserve more of an explanation? Or even a reference to an economics textbook in which this basic truth is explained to me, as someone who obviously doesn't have a clue about economics? I am, in any case, at a loss in trying to figure out what they mean. Lastly, where does the stated "increase in the supply of money and credit" come from?

Conclusion:
While the book at first appears to be highly organized, after reading it 1.5 times for a course, I've come to the conclusion that it hasn't done the contents much good, and it seems that not even the authors themselves could keep track of which information presented earlier should also be taken into account later, when they are applying the concepts. Additionally, literally dozens of (sub)sections contain paragraphs that present points that are entirely unrelated to the section heading under which they are presented.
Far too little time was spent weeding out redundant and uninformative passages like the ones cited, and the reader is, throughout the book, confronted with a veritable deluge of weasel words (especially "may be", "may have", "could be", "has possibly", and worst of all "perhaps") employed in order to "make points" without really making them, or at least without having to defend them. ("The Earth's protective ozone layer has been thinning, perhaps dangerously." p.399) And then there is the utter lack of references.
It's not clear to me at all why statements phrased that way should even be allowed to be in academic texts, let alone why they belong there, as they have very little explanatory value, and are often little more than (redundant) restatements of points made earlier, presented in the form of a conclusion.
The book as a whole certainly contains some useful information and insights, but there sadly is faro too much fluff, presented as equally valid, and no way to separate the two without already knowing more than the authors do.
While the scope of the book is certainly broad, it's so woefully lacking in academic rigour that no aspirations of the authors can compensate for it. This might have been excusable if they had been authorities in their field(s), but it is obvious from the book that they cannot distance themselves from the information they're providing, resulting in a horrendously biased treatment. So while I'm sympathetic to the authors' plight, I cannot seriously recommend this book to anyone.

Books

Journal: Book Review: The Two-Income Trap, by Elizabeth and Amelia Warren

Journal by boombaard

A few days ago, I encountered this lecture (the lecture itself starts about 6mins in), the contents of which quickly grabbed my attention. In it, Elizabeth Warren attacks a number of very common myths and misconceptions about the modern economy, most notably the notion that today's two-income families are more financially secure than one-income families were 30 years ago. While this would seem to be the rather obvious and logical consequence of both parents working, the somewhat counter-intuitive fact of the matter is that far more families are going bankrupt now than back when mom was still expected to stay at home; and even though today's families earn two incomes in stead of one, they have less money left over for discretionary spending (disposable income) than comparable one-income families did 30 years ago. Or, to put it in slightly charged statistical jargon: "Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse."

In 1999, bankruptcy filings by single women were up 662% from 1981 (to 500.000/y), with the number married women filing (alongside their husbands, obviously) also in the hundreds of thousands per year. As Warren says near the end of the lecture, there are [now] more children being confronted with their parent(s) going bankrupt, than there are children being confronted with parents filing for divorce. And yet, almost nobody seems to acknowledge this pervasive problem, even though everybody and their dead grandparents worry about the horrible negative impact divorces have on children. I was forced to wonder: was I supposed to conclude that it is better to be destitute than to have to go through a divorce, or is something else the issue here? Why isn't anyone looking at the "causes for bankruptcy", like they are looking at "reasons for divorce"? The question seems an interesting one to me, so could it be because people are afraid of the answer? (Or is it really just because it is assumed that bankruptcies are always effects of 'personal choices'?)
In the lecture, Warren mentioned a book which she had written some years previously, in 2003, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are going broke , which she co-authored with her daughter, Amelia Warren, and it is this book I wish to bring to your attention.

The book was written in the wake of their 2001 Consumer Bankruptcy Project study (for which they interviewed 2000 people) on the prevalence and causes of personal bankrupty filings in the US, and is meant to create awareness among politicians and the public alike of the counterintuitive consequences of both parents working. However, given the political climate in 2003, and the message contained in the book, it would seem that the book was released at a rather inopportune moment, as it mostly seems to have been ignored so far.
The first claim the Warrens pretty much demolish in their book is the popular myth that People Bring It Upon Themselves, and do so by buying stuff they don't need. One of the most interesting conclusions that can be drawn from the CBP is that, in 90% of cases, the reason people are filing for bankruptcy cannot be traced back to frivolous spending (which, so the argument goes, would mean it's their own fault), but rather to one of three reasons: Job loss, Medical bills and family break-up, often with one of those reasons causing another. As they put it:

They are not the very young, tempted by the freedom of their first credit cards. They are not the elderly, trapped by failing bodies and declining savings accounts. And they are not a random assortment of Americans who lack the self-control to keep their spending in check. Rather, the people who consistently rank in the worst financial trouble are united by one surprising characteristic. They are parents with children at home.(p.6)

While this may in a way seem logical (i.e., people, especially single mothers, who have more financial obligations are at more risk), the question which immediately comes to mind is: Shouldn't this be impossible specifically in the two-income family? Isn't it exactly to prevent this from happening that they both have jobs?

Consider, however, the following: Way back when women were not expected to work, they would be at home, taking care of the kids, their elderly parents, and the sick. If a child became ill, a grandparent needed more care, or someone had an accident, they would be cared for without the family income taking a hit. And if dad was the one to become ill, mom could choose to enter the workforce â" earning less, of course, than dad had been, but generally they would still be able to rake in about 60% of what her husband used to earn (p.59). Nowadays, of course, the normal situation is one where both parents are working, so that, as soon as either worker becomes ill or is laid off, the family income will on average be halved almost immediately. And this is a problem because the average family is spending nearly 50% of their income on the mortgage payments, leaving less money for discretionary spending now â" with both parents working â" than in the 70s with only one âworking' parent, and no backup worker for when something goes wrong.
The question here, of course, is why people are so (I would indeed call it that) foolish as to buy a house which required you to take out a mortgage that basically eats up an entire income. The answer to this question is two-fold, with one half being due to market forces, and the other to legislation.

As most readers will probably know, the US has a school system where you can only get into certain schools if you belong to the zip code area for that school. As such, if you are worried that the school in the area you are living in is bad, you will have to move to another zip code area. And in reality this meant moving out of the inner cities into the suburbs, which were perceived to be safer, as well as offering higher quality education. This, of course, means that housing in those areas will be relatively scarce compared to housing elsewhere, which in turn means higher prices. Now, once people started having a second income, this meant that more could be spent on the mortgage, and, when the lending market was deregulated early in the 1980s, there was no longer an imposed limit of 30% of total income which could be spent on mortgage payments. This meant house prices could rise a lot, with the bidders having to choose between the fear/thought of âoenot giving your children the chance they deserveâ and trying to make ends meet (and all the risks that that entails):

By way of example, consider University City, the West Philadelphia neighborhood surrounding the University of Pennsylvania. In an effort to improve the area, the university committed funds for a new elementary school. The results? At the time of the announcement, the median home value in the area was less than $60,000. Five years later, "homes within the boundaries go for about $200,000, even if they need to be totally renovated." The neighborhood is otherwise pretty much the same: the same commute to work, the same distance from the freeways, the same old houses. And yet, in five years families are willing to pay more than triple the price for a home, just so they can send their kids to a better public elementary school. (24)

So, we now have enormously increased housing costs for exactly the same houses as before, families with two people working who must bring in twice the paychecks as before to live at the same level of comfort (with a more-than-doubled chance that something will go wrong: "A family today with both husband and wife in the workforce is approximately two and a half times more likely to face a job loss than a single-income family of a generation ago." (82-3)). And then there is the socially pretty much invisible disease of bankruptcy, apparently quickly becoming just as prevalent as divorce (and sometimes accompanying it). The point with bankruptcy, of course, is that people try like the plague to avoid it. Once someone is laid off, most families seem to hold out the hope that they will quickly be able to find a new job, and use their credit card to make up for the temporary difference in income, figuring they will be able to pay it back when they've got 2 jobs again, rather than quickly deciding their only recourse is to take their child out of the school he/she is in, and move to another district, where housing is cheaper (and schools are potentially worse). This is, of course, statistically quite unrealistic, because even when they are able to find a job in, say, 3 months, they will be unable to save enough money every month to pay back the loan with. And so, after a while, they start incurring quickly-mounting "late fees", enormous interest hikes, and, oddly enough, more offers from credit companies to take out yet more loans, second or third mortgage, and so on, with the end result generally being (de facto) bankruptcy even when people do not file for it. ("In 1981, the median family filing for bankruptcy owed 80 percent of total annual income in credit card and other non-mortgage debts; by 2001, that figure had nearly doubled to 150 percent of annual income." (77)) Consider what they have to contend with:

After he suffered a heart attack, missed several months' work, and fell behind on his mortgage, Jamal Dupree (from chapter 4) got the hard sell from his mortgage lender. When Jamal missed a payment, the mortgage company sent him dozens of personalized letters with a single goalâ"to persuade him to take out yet another mortgage. "They'd send out a notice, saying 'you need a vacation, take out this thousand dollars and pay it back in ninety days.' If you didn't pay it back in ninety days, they charged you 22 percent interest." When he didn't respond to the mailers, the mortgage company started calling Jamal at home, as often as four times a week. Again, the company wasn't calling to collect the payments he had already missed; it was calling to sign him up for even more debt. Jamal resisted, but his mortgage lender didn't let up. "When I turned them down, they called my wife [at work], trying to get her to talk me into it." (139-40)

The book is filled with stuff like this, all backed up through an impressive collection of references (contained in the last 40 pages of the book), and all basically pointing to a single conclusion: in the current unregulated lending market the banks get away with charging whatever they want, and there is really nothing you can do to complain about it. Bankruptcies are becoming a fact of life, but over 80% (p.73) of the people who would stand to gain financially from declaring themselves bankrupt don't do so because of the shame they feel over having to do so. And while the debtors feel guilty over not being able to pay anything back, the banks do whatever they like. I mention this because, ever since 1997, banks had been lobbying to restrict bankruptcy filings, a fact the Warrens mention when they debunk the "fact" that bankruptcy filing rules were being abused by borrowers. Their attempts were blocked at first, but in 2005 consumers lost the fight, even though this book (and the results of study the book is based upon which showed the exact opposite was true) had already been published years earlier.
Other tidbits they mention/show: that college-educated single women are 60% more likely to go bankrupt than less educated women (106), or how institutionalized discrimination is basically alive and well in the banking industry,

The evidence is strong that the lending playing field is anything but level. After all, if the market were working properly, how could Citibank sell 40 percent of its high-priced subprime mortgages to families with good credit who would have qualified for low-cost mortgages? How could the company's loan officers get away with charging extra fees to anyone who "appeared uneducated"? And why would low-income whites get better terms on their mortgages than high-income African Americans?

or how banks try to get people to take out second mortgages they didn't need in the hope they would fall behind on payments so that they could repossess the house, etc, a process referred to in the industry as "loan-to-own".:

In many cases, these lenders don't just want families' money; they also want to take people's homes. Banks have been caught deliberately issuing mortgages to families that could not afford them, with the ultimate aim of foreclosing on these homes. This practice is so common it has its own name in the industry: "Loan to Own." These lenders have found that foreclosing can be more profitable than just simply collecting a mortgage payment every month, because the property can then be resold for more than the outstanding loan amount. (136)

One can certainly take issue with some things in this book, and the most important questions I would like to see answered are probably these:

  1. Why are American parents so afraid of their public school system? Is it even possible the quality really deteriorated that much?
  2. Why didn't families worry more about not being able to save anything? Sure, non-education/pension-related saving is not exactly encouraged by the current tax code, but is that really the whole reason? I know that people become a bit unreasonable/desperate in the face of the thought they will short-change their children, (yet another form of "think of the children", perhaps?) but isn't it a bit simplistic to suggest that this fear is the whole explanation? Yes, after a while those increased housing prices will become the new reality, and one that will be hard to combat especially when nobody notices how they arose (which people didn't), but still...

In all, however, I strongly recommend everyone, and especially Americans, read(s) this book. I'm well aware of the fact that "regulation" is almost as taboo in a some parts of US society as talking about taxpayer-funded access to healthcare, but I really think you should read this before making up your mind about whether or not the author might have a point, as this is one of the most comprehensive reviews of the empirically measurable results of holding those beliefs out there. Because I don't really care about what anyone's political affiliation is (Although I do think the polarization that comes from living in a two-party system doesn't help), but it bothers me that this is all ignored as a side-effect, "unintended consequence", or "acceptable casualties" of the (belief in) "free market". (Sure: you can choose to accept it, but that hardly makes it unavoidable. There were strong usury laws on the books until 1980 or so, when they became de facto unenforcable.) If anywhere you need regulation, it's where two unequal parties meet, and individual consumers are about as helpless vis-a-vis the loanshark/banking industry as it gets. Why else would they be able to force people into taking out second mortgages they don't need, subprime mortgages when they can get prime rate mortgages, etc? The banking industry doesn't deserve the right to fuck over everyone who is dumb (or forced, or desperate) enough to come to them for a (temporary) loan. And this was all before the subprime crisis (which they made possible by fighting for deregulation in the first place) happened. (Lastly, if you also feel this book made you think, please recommend it to friends yourself. It doesn't seem right that these facts can be ignored in policy debates, either at home or in government, because Lord knows congressmen and senators can get away with shouting just about anything in the media without it coming back to haunt them.)

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