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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The year in books: #3, Jim Crow's Children 

#3 Jim Crow's Children (95 points)
[The hardcover version of this book was published in late 2002...the paperback reached wide popularity in 2004, but is included with this year's books since I did not do a review last year, and because I read it in 2005]
At #3, we take a huge step up (6 points higher than #4) to a book of wide societal, historical and cultural significance. Peter Irons has done a thorough job of relating the (U.S. only) history of major race-related Supreme Court decisions in Jim Crow's Children. Perhaps the most egregious decision ever made by the Supreme Court was the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which along with the Abolitionist movements in Kansas, Virginia and elsewhere, made virtually inevitable the Civil War which shortly followed. In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court reversed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (made untenable, from the perspective of the slave states, by the fact that the North was adding free states faster than the South could slave states). Chief Justice Taney actually opined: "[Blacks] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."

The Civil War, of course, reversed the Dred Scott decision, but Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 ruled that "separate but equal" facilities, or segregated facilities, were legal, paving the way for the "Blacks only" bus seats, drinking fountains, dining tables, etc. that were the way of life in the south until the 1960's. Irons shows how Supreme Court justices have fought over race-related issues since the Constitution was first signed. Plessy v. Ferguson was finally overturned in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, Kansas--we'll see more on this in our #2 book of the year), and Irons does an excellent job of painting the scenes for segregation in Delaware, S. Carolina, Virginia and Kansas leading up to this decision. He shows how brave folks like Thurgood Marshall successfully argued that segregation, even in cases where there are no material advantages to one race, causes stigmatization. Irons' coverage of the tumultuous 1960's and the fight against entrenched bigotry in the South (and elsewhere...see below) is worth the read alone.

Next, Irons turns to more recent events, including the "white flight" to the suburbs, the fight against and eventual elimination of mandated busing, and the increasing segregation of our schools (not to mention the rise of private schools and homeschooling)--as examples of how segregation continues in spite of the supposed "enlightened" age brought about by the Brown decision and the 1960's and 1970's. By the way, the North has some of the most segregated states--Massachusetts, New York and Illinois among them--the South is guilty of an ignominious history regarding race, but the North is not without sin, either.

Irons' book may be a little too heavy on legalese, and a bit too broad in its historical scope, for many readers. But, Irons does a nice job of trying to keep his political views out of the story (the story doesn't need it, except when he needs to give you perspective on the individual Supreme Court justices to help understand their decisions). For any who think race is not still an important--if not defining--issue for the US, this book is a must read. It is also important for anyone who is interested in understanding the US today. Racism relates to classism and sexism, and like them is an unresolved issue to which many have become so intransigent that they do not allow new information to affect them. Reading this book will affect you, and even if it doesn't change your perspective.

-Vulf

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Best Books of 2005, #4, Guantanamo 

#4 Guantanamo, What the World Should Know (89 points)
Technically a 2004 book, Guantanamo (What the World Should Know) by Michael Ratner as interviewed by Ellen Ray was the first book to hit public consciousness (in early 2005--there are several worthwhile books recently out on the topic) on the systematic torture of (non-terrorist) prisoners by the US military and intelligence agents. The style is dry, composed as an interview of one of the top civil rights lawyers about the history of Guantanamo, the laws in place regarding torture, and how these laws have been skirted by the US. The description of Guantanamo as a place "not part of the United States" by the current US regime is shown for the disingenuous fraud that it is, and this thin book will also show you why Gonzales was picked to replace Ashcroft. The Bush Administration is hoping to change the "laws" about torture, spying, phosphorus chemical weapons, depleted uranium atomic weapons, etc., failing to understand that you can still be tried for actions that were illegal at the time you committed them.

This book may have benefitted from photographic and further written depictions of the US military (and Northern Alliance) actions (although subsequent books are filling this void)...particularly with the Holocaust-like cattle car transport (and 90% mortality rates en route--Northern Alliance troops under US supervision shot holes in the train cars to "ameliorate suffocation"). Also, because Michael Ratner is a civil rights lawyer, your standard "Joe Sixpack" will not be convinced (check out the Amazon.com reviews...all 5's except for one self-described "libertarian"--his rant is worth the price of admission).

However, what the book does cover, it covers precisely and accurately. Regardless of whether terrorists are "protected" by the Geneva Convention and other International Laws against torture, certainly enemy combatants are. The US is holding enemy combatants without charges, without trial, and without merit, for four years. And systematically torturing them. It has eroded public opinion on the "moral high ground" of the US in every country on the planet, except for, ostensibly, nearly half the US.

By the way, I carried two things in the peace march (200+ strong) marking the 2-year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq this year. One was my share of the casket at the front of the march, the other was this book, which I held out with my free arm to show the counter-demonstration (7 lunatics carrying pro-Bush signs including "HA HA, another 4 years", "Support Our Troops" and less printable epithets). We were coached not to talk to them. Interestingly, no one in the counter-demonstration seemed to have a good retort for the Guantanamo book (though their comments on my sweater and hiking boots were certainly quality comedy). It's one thing to support a President who spies on us outside the bounds of FISA--it's much harder to rally behind a man who has undercut any semblance of US moral leadership in the world. And as this book poignantly elucidates, Bush has shockingly not left any separation between himself and the command to torture. This is perhaps the most incredible part about the institutionalization of torture under the Bush regime: Bush and Gonzales have not left any doubt about their role in it. Time will tell what the price will be for this brazenness--but rest assured posterity will list Bush and Gonzales as directing a program of torture. Historically, this has left one culpable of war crimes.

-Vulf
Next: the Top 3, and what a top 3 it was!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Best book (?) of 2005...#5 on Vulf's list 

According to the Statistical Abstract,

Nearly 78 million Americans read a book in the last year.

Yes, that's *a* book. Not the Top 10 books, not the top 5, not even the Top 2. But *a* single book.

One can take this negatively, with unimaginative yet amusing side comments on functional illiteracy. Or one can take it positively, and assume many Americans are relying on The Bite to provide them with cunning reviews of these books, to save them time crucial for shopping and tv viewing. And that will be provided here on The Bite as we move to the Top 5 of 2005. This blog covers #5, first available in paperback in September of 2005.

#5 The Wimp Factor (87 points)
Every book in the Top 5 is a must read, but since 3/4 of you won't read a *single* book, I will try to "do" due diligence here. It had been a long time since I laughed so much reading a serious book. The Wimp Factor is an absolute rib-splitter, assuming you are no fan of George Bush. Stephen Ducat is clearly a man with both profound insight, and the confidence to use it. Bush and his fellow wimps-as-posing-He-men are exposed in this book, literally. As it turns out, the smirking George Bush doll shown on the cover of The Wimp Factor comes "physiologically correct", with an erect member to ensure kids don't associate our Prez with the effete former cheerleader/bisexual with which his college days otherwise associate him.

Stephen has much more to say than mere Bush bashing (although, in fairness, this book scored lower than the Top 4 in the book list mainly because of its rightfully low score on "even-handedness": this book is unlikely to sway Republicans or even most moderates). His book, covering Bush's equally disconnected father and the Clinton years, makes excellent points in explaining the real power behind the ignominious and infamous Willie Horton ads in 1988 and the oxymoronic improvement in Clinton's popularity during the height (depth?) of the Lewinsky hearings.

This book would have been stronger had Ducat supported his own research better with complementary studies by his colleagues. Also, had he pulled a punch or two in his (understandable) battering of our hapless, helpless, hopeless, hintless President, he may have convinced more "on the fence" voters when his book was available in hardbound version before the last Diebold-controlled but still voter-influenced election.

Regardless, if you read The Bite regularly, you have developed a thick skin for our beloved leader, who serves "freedom" through repression, "hope" through civilian bombing, and "openness" through the use of phosphorus-based chemical weapons and systematic torture in concentrated camps closed to international monitoring. It is easy to understand why Ducat is so annoyed by the ability of poser-anxious-males to snooker equally anxious voters to "like" them. It's just that, to convince both Rush Limbaugh listeners who read, he may wish to further dampen his invectives. Also, the book is replete with Freudian references, which may tire some readers.

That being said, ignoring the political theme, this book is a must-read for anyone with concerned with women's studies, gender studies, and especially the rampant femiphobia that pervades our culture. It is also worth pointing out that if you don't like Bush, well then, there are pretty much no caveats other than you wear a rib brace to keep your sides from splitting. This book is funnier than Franken's Lies & the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Sadly, it is no less accurate.

-Vulf

Apologies...a time out from the Top 10 Book List... 

This report on the economy is simply too important to be ignored, and summarizes a number of threads discussed here on The Bite in 2005. My comments in non-italicized font:

1. Profits are up, but the wages and the incomes of average Americans are down.
Inflation-adjusted hourly and weekly wages are still below where they were at the start of the recovery in November 2001. Yet, productivity—the growth of the economic pie—is up by 13.5%. Wage growth has been shortchanged because 35% of the growth of total income in the corporate sector has been distributed as corporate profits, far more than the 22% in previous periods. Consequently, median household income (inflation-adjusted) has fallen five years in a row and was 4% lower in 2004 than in 1999, falling from $46,129 to $44,389.

We all know why productivity is up so much...people are working many more hours for the same pay. You can see the "face of fear" in many. They'll work harder to keep their job. I remember storeis of folks working 90-hour weeks on their lat week at Agilent Technologies...knowing they were being laid off that week.

2. More and more people are deeper and deeper in debt.
The indebtedness of U.S. households, after adjusting for inflation, has risen 35.7% over the last four years. The level of debt as a percent of after-tax income is the highest ever measured in our history. Mortgage and consumer debt is now 115% of after-tax income, twice the level of 30 years ago. The debt-service ratio (the percent of after-tax income that goes to pay off debts) is at an all-time high of 13.6%. The personal savings rate is negative for the first time since WWII.

These data are readily explained. The whole US economic "health" is based on the addiction-like panacea of debt-shopping. Anytime folks stop buying, the economy tanks. The government will do anything it can to get folks to buy. It obviously can't last, but like a heroine addict looking for the next fix, the US just doesn't seem to understand.

3. Job creation has not kept up with population growth, and the employment rate has fallen sharply.
The United States has only 1.3% more jobs today (excluding the effects of Hurricane Katrina) than in March 2001 (the start of the recession). Private sector jobs are up only 0.8%. At this stage of previous business cycles, jobs had grown by an average of 8.8% and never less than 6.0%. The unemployment rate is relatively low at 5%, but still higher than the 4% in 2000. Plus, the percent of the population that has a job has never recovered since the recession and is still 1.3% lower than in March 2001. If the employment rate had returned to pre-recession levels, 3 million more people would be employed. More than 3 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since January 2000.

As we've talked about before on The Bite, the unemployment rate is "non-GAAP". Those who've given up hope aren't counted. Those who work part-time but used to (and wish they still did) work full-time aren't (even partly) counted. The loss of middle class jobs is also offset by the same employment rate for lower class and illegals. It is a growing disparity between rich and poor, which is why the employment numbers aren't as important as median income, which as we saw above is declining.

4. Poverty is on the rise.
The poverty rate rose from 11.3% in 2000 to 12.7% in 2004. The number of people living in poverty has increased by 5.4 million since 2000. More children are living in poverty: the child poverty rate increased from 16.2% in 2000 to 17.8% in 2004.

The U.S. labor market mobility is calcifying (another result of globalization), making it harder to escape poverty. This trend will be difficult to reverse.

5. Rising health care costs are eroding families' already declining income.
Households are spending more on health care. Family health costs rose 43-45% for married couples with children, single mothers, and young singles from 2000 to 2003. Employers are cutting back on health insurance. Last year, the percent of people with employer-provided health insurance fell for the fourth year in a row. Nearly 3.7 million fewer people had employer-provided insurance in 2004 than in 2000. Taking population growth into account, 11 million more people would have had employer-provided health insurance in 2004 if the coverage rate had remained at the 2000 level.


Given the total cost of health care in the US, estimated at more than $4000/person, this is a benefit whose loss is the difference between prosperity and desperation.

There is a lot of work to be done on all of this. Too bad all the money's been spent on tax breaks and ill-advised wars.

-Vulf

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