Why is this happening?
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - December 16, 2017 - 4:00pm

This is that time of the year for buying presents, attending parties and decorating homes. For me, this is also the time of the year when the lists of the best books for the year are published. This is usually my guide on what books I will read for the coming year.

I begin my intended list by determining what two or three topics I will focus my reading list on. I say “intended” because I never really read all the books I want to read and the list changes during the year. My list is influenced by the events that have impacted my life during the past year. 

Some turn to reading to seek inspiration and spiritual guidance. Then there are those who read books the way you look and appreciate great works of art. Most people look to newspapers and magazines to find out what is happening. But I share a common interest with many other people who read books for another reason.

Why is this happening? I have realized that only by reading books will I ever have an inkling of finding out why the world is changing so fast and accelerating into a political, social and economic trajectory that was not anticipated even just a few years ago.

In an era of rapid technological change and scientific advances,  the world is seeing a resurrection of populism and even fascism in some countries. Once it was predicted that the wonders of modern science would create a utopian world where everybody could live in an environment of peace, prosperity and equal opportunity. The era of the socialist dream ended after millions of lives were sacrificed in revolutions and insurrections.

Then came the promise of capitalism.   We were told: “Greed is Good.”  If the rich get richer, the wealth will trickle down and uplift the poor. The world would now be a better place. The richer got richer but the divide between rich and poor became wider and more bitter.

Another promise was that as people became more literate, there would be a flourishing of the ideals of a liberal democracy. The people will embrace leaders who espoused these ideals.  Instead  we saw populists like Trump being elected even in the most so-called liberal Western democracies. There is a resurgence of the far right parties in Europe – the cradle of liberal democracy. 

Why are all these things happening? The answers seem to be found in three forces – income inequality, technological change and globalization. These are the topics that will guide my choice of books I plan to read this coming year. Here are a few suggested readings that I got.

The GREAT LEVELER: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel,  Princeton Press, 2017.

The book is on the recommended list of best books by the Economist magazine. From the different book reviews I have read, the book’s theme is that only violence and catastrophes have consistently reduced inequality throughout world history.  Tracing world history of global inequality from the Stone Age to today, the author shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strikes and increases when peace and stability return. 

Economic inequality is a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years only violent events have significantly lessened inequality.  It is only the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. The four are – Mass Mobilization Warfare, Transformative Revolutions, State Collapse, and Catastrophic Plagues.

The book sounds like a very pessimistic forecast of the future. It seems we  will all have to live in an increasingly unequal world until we are visited by one or more of the Four Horsemen. 

There are other books on the Economist list of Books of the Year 2017. I would like to read. The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational  Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Princeton University Press. “Rather than filling their garages with flashy cars today’s rich devote their budgets to less visible but more valuable  ends: education, domestic services, and cultural capital. A professor at the University of Southern California shows why it so difficult to stop the privileged position of the elites from becoming more entrenched.”

Megatech: Technology in 2050. Edi-ted by Daniel Franklin. Economist Books.  “Technology moves fast. Twenty experts identify where it will take us by 2050.” Compiled by the executive director of the Economist magazine.

Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, Princeton University Press.  “Businesses in rich countries are  increasingly investing in “intangible” assets, including research and development, branding and public relations, and less in “tangible” ones such as machinery. The growing importance of intangible assets plays a part in some of the big trends that are gripping rich economies, from rising income inequality to weak growth in productivity.”

From the National Book Award winners for 2017, I intend to read Martial Law Never Again by Raissa Robles. This is a book all Filipinos should read.

I am still looking for a book that will explain to me the GINI index which is a method or formula for determining the extent of income inequality in a nation. It still seems unbelievable that only around 60 individuals own as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion people in the world or that only three individuals have as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the United States population. The three are Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.

For those who are looking forward to a better world, I recommend reading the book written by my favorite author and columnist Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration. I wrote a column about this book two months ago and one of my most pleasant Christmas surprises I have just  received this year was a simple message:

Dear Elfren, Thanks for your lovely review! Tom Friedman”

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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