Friday, July 14, 2017

Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon

If you have an opinion about pitbulls, chances are good that it's based on myth, misinformation, and even disinformation. I know a good deal about dogs, and I thought I knew a lot about pitbulls, yet I was constantly amazed and enlightened by Bronwen Dickey's Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.

Here are some of the things you will learn if you read this book.

There is no agreement on what a pit bull is.

No one can correctly identify a dog's breed-mix based on the dog's appearance, including experts.

Many or most media stories about pitbulls are based on uncorroborated heresay and myths, and many are actually fiction.

Many dog-bite incidents reported as involving pitbulls actually involved Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Poodles, and other breeds.

Accurate statistics about dog bites, especially those that account for severity, do not exist.

There is nothing special about a pitbull's jaws or the strength of its bite. In fact, no test exists to measure the strength of a dog's bite, thus "facts" about a pitbull's bite being x pounds of pressure compared to other dogs' bites, are pure fiction.

Reading this book, you will consider connections between the media's portrayal of pitbulls and racism, between fear of pitbulls and fear of urban youth, the dynamics of a social phenomenon known as "moral panic", and how the moral panic over pitbulls mirrors the one about crack cocaine. And did you know that in pre-Civil War America, dogs of slaves were confiscated and put to death, as were dogs in Jewish homes in Nazi Germany?

All this might be merely interesting, or perhaps fascinating, if ignorance and moral panic didn't inform law-making. Sadly and infuriatingly, this is not the case. Thousands of dogs labeled as pitbulls that never harmed anyone or showed any signs of aggression have been killed. Thousands of people were forced to choose between their beloved dogs and homelessness, when any dog deemed a pitbull was banned from most public housing and much private housing. This is not about a dangerous dog being euthanized. This is the wholesale round-up and (attempted) eradication of dogs based on appearance only.

In one of the many insightful looks into media coverage of dog-bite stories, Dickey uncovers the total lack of credentials, expertise, and experience of the owner of a professional-looking website called She notes that on one side of the so-called debate are the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the National Animal Care and Control Association, the Animal Behavior Society, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. and all but one animal welfare organization. On the other side, the owner of an attractive website with unsourced claims. But the media, in the name of "balance", will give these two sides equal weight, without questioning where gets its information. The answer is: they make it up.

Dickey introduces the reader to two important, remarkable organizations: the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, now called Beyond Fences, and a Humane Society program called Pets for Life. In the past, the only thing animal control organizations could do for neglected dogs was remove them from homes -- a chilling echo of how children were removed from certain homes under the guise of protection. These two groups help people keep their animals, by offering free veterinary care, free quality dog food, and free dog-care education. Because -- go figure -- it turns out low-income families love their animals just as much as affluent families. The descriptions of dogs and people whose lives have been transformed by the dedicated people of these organizations are the most beautiful and hopeful parts of this book.

Dickey introduces the reader to many amazing people -- dedicated rescuers and trainers, as well as people who are amazing for all the wrong reasons -- amazingly ignorant, willfully ill-informed, and close-minded, determined to rid the world of one supposed breed based on a refusal to acknowledge facts.

Dickey's book is a tour de force of research and synthesis. It's not so much a book about dogs, as a book of history, sociology, science, and information studies where dogs are the organizing principle. I wish that everyone who has an opinion about pitbulls was required to read this book. (This review was originally published on wmtc.)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)

John McWhorter is changing my mind about language. And that is no easy thing to do.

I'm a grammarphile. Word nerd, language junkie, spelling nut, stickler -- whatever you want to call it. I appreciate proper spelling and good grammar, and I cringe at all the bad grammar all around us. Apostrophe abuse drives me insane. Same for unnecessary quotation marks. Misspelled words on websites, signs, flyers, and official documents... don't get me started.

Yet I also part ways with some of my fellow grammar-lovers. I believe grammar is important for writing, but not necessarily for speech -- and certainly not for casual speech. I hate seeing knowledge of grammar used to shame or exclude, or worse, as an excuse to not listen.

Even further, I believe it's perfectly all right to relax certain writing rules for casual writing. It's not necessary, in my view, to use awkward phrasing in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition in a casual email. It's all right to use sentence fragments, or to start a sentence with but. I don't think the English language is being killed off by texting; in fact, I know it's not. And most importantly, I don't think I'm better or smarter than anyone else because I use apostrophes correctly and they don't. But those unnecessary apostrophes still drive me insane!

So perhaps I was pre-disposed to enjoy John Whorter's enlightening and entertaining book, Words on the Move: Why English Won't -- and Can't -- Sit Still (Like Literally). But I do think that anyone who enjoys thinking about language would like this book.

McWhorter's most important message is in the title: language is never still. The meanings of words always change. Meanings have always changed, they are changing now, and they will continue to change in the future.
It isn't that a certain curiosity cabinet of a few dozen words happened to have different meanings hundreds of years ago. Just about all words in any language have different meanings now than they did in the past. Some words' meanings hold on longer than others. Some few even hold on to the same meaning for thousands of years. However, it is they...that are the oddities.
The book presents some illustrations of every day objects such as bread, fruit, meat, and fuel, and the words that have been used to convey those meanings over centuries. Then, the author writes,
Picture this process happening across tens of thousands of words all the time. That is the essence of what words are, and why the dictionary can qualify only as a snapshot of how the film was situated on the grid at one particular point in time.
McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature, says this throughout the book, in many different, entertaining ways. One of his strengths is creating lovely little analogies to illustrate his meaning. He's also very adept at shooting holes in the corrections most beloved by correcters, by showing us how inconsistent we all are.

If there's an expression that drives you crazy because it's usually used "wrong," chances are, it meant your particular version of "correct" only for a period of time in between its other meanings and uses. Most likely, the meaning has changed and you need to update your personal lexicon. Whatever your favourite bugaboo -- decimate, irregardless, sink down, used to, literally -- McWhorter has a slew of examples to prove that your objections are inconsistent at best, and might even be ridiculous. Those of us who hate the overuse of literally to mean its opposite may be surprised at how many words now mean their opposite that we never bother to complain about -- because those words changed in a different time and bothered different people. And it's not just English. It's all languages, all the time. Change, change, change.

Some of McWhorter's ideas are controversial. He explains speech tics such as "like" and "you know," and why we shouldn't care about them. He maintains that slang, including shorthands we use online and in text messages, are as old as language itself, and don't hurt the language. He counsels us to embrace "the euphemism treadmill" -- from Colored to Negro to Black to African American -- and explains why cultures make these shifts.

Perhaps most controversially, McWhorter argues that Shakespeare should be cautiously and judiciously translated, to make the plays more accessible to contemporary audiences.

If you love Shakespeare as I do, let me elaborate before your blood pressure elevates. About 10 percent of the words Shakespeare used now mean something completely different than they did when he wrote them. If we read Shakespeare, we can use footnotes, but when we watch a play or film adaptation -- and the words were meant to be performed, after all -- we can often follow the action through context and prior knowledge, and we might get the gist of the language, but we miss a good deal of the meaning. We miss more than we think, something the author illustrates very well. McWhorter believes that Shakespearean scholars should tweak the language for greater understanding.
Yes, I have been one of those people, and have experienced resistance (and even dribbles of vitriol) in response. However, most of this resistance has been based on the idea that the difference between our language and Shakespeare's is only one of poetry, density, or elevation.

The reason Shakespeare's prose sounds so "poetic" is partly because it is. But it is also partly for the more mundane reasons that his language is not, to a larger extent than we might prefer to know, inaccessible to us without careful study on the page.

Many assume that the translation I refer to would have to be into slang. I suspect this is because it can be hard to perceive that the very meanings of even the most mundane of words have often changed so much -- if one thinks the difficulty of the language is merely a matter of "poetry," then it's easy to think that no translation in neutral current English could be at issue, and hence the notion of "Yo, whaddup, Calpurnia?" as a serious literary suggestion.
He gives a few elegant examples, which are "hardly a desecration" -- the language is still "challenging and even beautiful, especially since most of it is the original." I must agree. He explains that he's not suggesting the original plays be withdrawn and never read.
However a world where the usual experience of a Shakespeare play outside universities was in today's English would be one where, quite simply, more people were capable of truly understanding and enjoying the Bard's work rather than genuflecting to it. Seeing Shakespeare shouldn't be like eating your vegetables -- even tasty vegetables. Nor is it much more inspiring for us to treat Shakespeare as a kind of verbal wallpaper or scent that we sit back and allow to "wash over" us. . . . Shakespeare translated into today's English wouldn't be exactly Shakespeare, no. But given a choice between Shakespeare as an elite taste and Shakespeare engaged the way Russians engage Chekhov and Americans engage Scorsese films and "Arrested Development", some may judge Shakespeare that isn't always exactly what Shakespeare wrote as less than a tragedy.
Like the novel, theatre, and baseball, language is something people often claim is dying or already dead. But if no one ever writes or reads another novel, and the great game of baseball is never played again, we will still have language -- because we are human. And language will still be changing, because that's what it does. (This was originally published on wmtc.)

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom is another lengthy title by Blaine Harden. He in fact tells two stories, which are only remotely connected. Over 240 pages Harden gives a brief history of the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and its founding father, the Great Leader and Hero of the Revolution, the Father of the Korean People, Marshall Kim Il Sung. The second story is that of MiG pilot No Kum Sok and his defection to the South. Harden tries to link the two starting with a wholly unbelievable encounter No is alleged to have had with the Great Leader. In a reminiscence that reads more like a rose-coloured coulda-shoulda than a piece of credible history, No claims to have have the chance to murder Kim Il Sung at point-blank range, and has regretted not doing so ever since. I had a problem with Harden's earlier book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West because it lacked credibility. In that book as in this one, Harden comes off as exceptionally gullible, accepting whatever his North Korean subjects tell him. No's testimony has been tainted by sixty years of delusional revisionism, wherein he imagines himself as an uncrowned hero of a united Korean peninsula if only he had finished Kim off when he had the chance.

While Harden's story of No's escape by flying his MiG across the DMZ was sullied by its lack of credibility and delusions of convenience, I found his account of Kim Il Sung's role in the establishment of the DPRK, as well as his ways of holding a tight rein on power by liquidating all opposition, to be a gripping read. I have read many books on North Korean history, and Harden seems to know when to ice the story with sensationalism and when to lay off. I found it most interesting how Kim played both Stalin and Mao and used each leader to his advantage.

The detailed map at the beginning of the book misplaces Mount Paektu, where the Great Leader established his secret camp during the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. Harden assigned it about 100 km northeast of its actual location on the DPRK-PR China frontier. This is a significant error, as much of the story about the founding of the DPRK takes place at the secret camp.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

When I first heard the incarceration of African Americans in the United States referred to as a "new Jim Crow," I thought it must be hyperbole. So did Michelle Alexander, a fact she discloses in the introduction to her book. As Alexander researched the concept, the more she learned, the more she changed her mind. She changed my mind, too.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander builds an unassailable case that mass incarceration through the (so-called) War on Drugs is the third large-scale caste system that holds Black Americans in a second-class status. This is true even in a society that includes Oprah Winfrey, Clarence Thomas, and, of course, Barack Obama.

The first caste system was slavery. The second was the laws and customs of segregation, discrimination, and terror known as Jim Crow. The third and current system is mass incarceration. This includes rules governing local policing, key court rulings, the court system itself, the parole and probation system, and laws that discriminate against former inmates.

* * * *

The numbers are staggering. More African Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. A greater percentage of African Americans are under correctional control now than black South Africans were during apartheid.

The US is 5% of the world population and has 25% of world's prisoners. Black and Latino Americans comprise one-quarter of the US population, but almost 60% of the prison population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white Americans.

In terms of the War on Drugs, one might think these disparities could be explained by differences in rates of illegal activity. One would be wrong. The data shows that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at very similar rates. When there is a difference by skin colour, the numbers skew towards whites.
Thus, the very same year Human Rights Watch was reporting that African Americans were being arrested and imprisoned at unprecedented rates, government data revealed that blacks were no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites and that white youth were actually the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to be guilty of illegal drug possession and sales.
The fact of incarceration alone is only one piece of the picture. Before incarceration, there is a series of court rulings that have gutted constitutional protections (especially the Fourth Amendment, the right to be free of unwarranted search and seizure), and make it impossible for citizens to argue racial bias in any criminal proceeding. There are draconian mandatory sentencing laws, which lead to the normalization of plea bargaining, in which people who have committed no crime plead guilty to some crime, in order to avoid a life sentence. There are huge financial incentives to municipalities to militarize their police forces, and to states for building -- and filling -- prisons.

After incarceration, the system prevents almost everyone who has been incarcerated from re-entering mainstream life. It is virtually impossible for anyone convicted of a felony to access housing, education loans, or jobs. In most states, formerly incarcerated people are stripped of voting rights and from jury rolls -- forever.

Former inmates, as Alexander writes, "will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Right now, about 30% of African American men are automatically banned from jury duty -- for life.

There is a terrible circular logic to the system. As a former US attorney general explained:
Law enforcement officials often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as a justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted. The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color was, in part, a product of racial profiling -- not a justification for it.

In the years following the release of the New Jersey and Maryland data, dozens of other studies of racial profiling have been conducted. A brief sampling:

• In Volusia County, Florida, a reporter obtained 148 hours of video footage documenting more than 1,000 highway stops conducted by state troopers. Only 5 percent of the drivers on the road were African American or Latino, but more than 80 percent of the people stopped and searched were minorities.

• In Illinois, the state police initiated a drug interdiction program known as Operation Valkyrie that targeted Latino motorists. While Latinos comprised less than 8 percent of the Illinois population and took fewer than 3 percent of the personal vehicle trips in Illinois, they comprised approximately 30 percent of the motorists stopped by drug interdiction officers for discretionary offenses, such as failure to signal a lane change. [These discretionary offenses are often an excuse to search vehicles or to arrest people for "resisting".] Latinos, however, were significantly less likely than whites to have illegal contraband in their vehicles.

• A racial profiling study in Oakland, California, in 2001 showed that African Americans were approximately twice as likely as whites to be stopped, and three times as likely to be searched.

Pedestrian stops, too, have been the subject of study and controversy. The New York Police Department released statistics in February 2007 showing that during the prior year its officers stopped an astounding 508,540 people -- an average of 1,393 per day -- who were walking down the street, perhaps on their way to the subway, grocery store, or bus stop. Often the stops included searches for illegal drugs or guns -- searches that frequently required people to lie face down on the pavement or stand spreadeagled against a wall while police officers aggressively groped all over their bodies while bystanders watched or walked by. The vast majority of those stopped and searched were racial minorities, and more than half were African American. . . . . 
Although the NYPD attempted to justify the stops on the grounds that they were designed to get guns off the street, stops by the Street Crime Unit -- the group of officers who supposedly are specially trained to identify gun-toting thugs -- yielded a weapon in only 2.5 percent of all stops. . . .

Rather than reducing reliance on stop-and-frisk tactics following the Diallo shooting* and the release of this disturbing data, the NYPD dramatically increased its number of pedestrian stops and continued to stop and frisk African Americans at grossly disproportionate rates. The NYPD stopped five times more people in 2005 than in 2002 -- the overwhelming majority of whom were African American or Latino.
Perhaps the most surprising portion of The New Jim Crow is Alexander's history of the War on Drugs. The "tough on crime" stance that began under President Nixon and intensified under Presidents Reagan and Clinton was born when rates of drug use and crime were low.

Today nearly one-third of African American men are likely to spend time in prison. Once released, they live in a state of permanent second-class citizenship. Alexander builds a case that the War on Drugs was not a response to higher crime rates, but a deliberate plan to dismantle the gains of the civil rights movement. If this sounds unlikely, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alexander has clearly done exhaustive research, but she doesn't exhaust the reader with statistics. Although the numbers are extremely convincing, they are woven into a compelling, readable narrative. It's a disturbing book, as it should be, and an excellent one. [This review originally appeared here on wtmc.]

* Amadou Diallo was an African immigrant living in New York City. In 1999, when stopped by the police and asked for identification, he reached for his wallet. Police later said they thought the wallet was a gun. The police shot 41 times. Diallo was 22 years old, and unarmed.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow

This is what humanity will aim to accomplish in the not too distant future: immortality, bliss and divinity. The claim was so bold I had to read the book and discover if author Yuval Noah Harari could support it. In his last book Homo Sapiens (a book I reviewed earlier) Harari achieved international bestseller status. That book covered the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the rise of the near god-like technological prowess of human beings. In this latest study, Homo Deus, which the author admits is more an exercise in that most precarious of all academic endeavours predicting the future, Harari looks at global and technological trends and surmises what they suggest about the direction our world is heading in.

The book is full of really interesting ideas (much like the previous Homo Sapiens book). I’ll take a moment to list some that I liked. He plots the advent of our species as supreme over all other sentient life on earth. We are thoroughly now the bosses of this corner of the universe. No controversy there. Harari goes on to make bolder claims about humanism as the great creed of the world; an argument I find convincing with some qualifications. Harari makes interesting use of the idea of algorithms. I have read and reread what he has to say on this topic and it is still not clear to me. My confusion stems from an ambiguity in his argument. Is he making a claim that all things in the universe (from rocks to humans) operate like algorithms or is he making the much stronger claim that the universe is a series of algorithms (what I would call an ontological or metaphysical claim)? What about consciousness? This is something that, notoriously, does not fit well into the algorithm analogy. Once again, Harari makes some audacious assertions. Biology is an elaborate algorithm and consciousness may just be really complicated biology. When we develop super computers perhaps we can reduce history to biology and so history will be an algorithm also (114—151). If after reading these lines you have images of Neo navigating the Matrix (red pill or blue pill?) then you’re not alone. This, to my mind, is the most startling claim of the book: if everything is algorithms, and we as algorithms ourselves come to know this, then we can remake the universe to suit our desires. Wow.

Science had knocked humans off the pedestal of specialness after having first knocked God off of His—much bigger—pedestal. They (the scientists) had told us our planet was just one of billions in an unimportant part of a galaxy that is itself just one of billions of galaxies. Well, that was then. Harari is suggesting humans are about to make a colossal return to specialness status as Homo Deus. Sounds great but there may be a very dark side to this new status—power and corruption and nihilism.

Predictions. These are just predictions. The paradox of knowledge may alter these predictions. What is the paradox of knowledge? It is this: knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless; knowledge that changes behaviour quickly becomes irrelevant (57).  The more we know about the course history is taking (the more data we accumulate) the faster we alter the situation, thus rendering our information and data collection quaint. Karl Marx wrote about an impending revolution in the world order, the great class struggle as he called it—but it never came to pass. Why? Because capitalists also read books. Governments around the world read Das Kapital and his other writings and came up with (socialist) fixes to many capitalist problems and voila, no revolution! The paradox of knowledge.

I like books in the Homo Deus vein. They give me this weird, almost guilty pleasure of seeing the future and knowing something others don’t about where the world is heading. But the prediction game is fraught with difficulties. Most future forecasts never come to pass. Predicting is hard because life has a funny way of grooving along to its own non-algorithm-rhythm. Some of what Harari says may come to pass, technology is sure to impact our lives in ways we can barely conceive. But I think he has the human bit wrong. We are more than biological beings; if pressed (as I’m sure Harari would insist on pressing) to explain the “more” I could offer nothing that would count as scientific—yet we are more. We (every single one of us) is a unique combination of utter contradictions. Predicting what we will do next, even with all the computing power in the universe, is hard (is it impossible?).  Homo Deus is very much worth the read if you enjoy thinking about these ideas.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two teenagers from Littleton, Colorado, marched into Columbine High School with explosives and automatic weapons. Their plan to blow up the entire school failed -- only because their homemade bombs did not explode -- so they walked around the school shooting people. They killed 12 students and one teacher, wounded 24 others, and unleashed untold mental suffering on their entire community, before killing themselves.

I very clearly remember hearing about this, and just as clearly remember thinking that the Klebold and Harris families had suffered the worst tragedy of all. What could be worse than your child dying in a school shooting? To me, the answer is all too obvious: knowing your child took the lives of other children. I remember, too, feeling so sad and discouraged when some Columbine parents refused to allow Klebold and Harris to be memorialized along with the other victims, insisting the memorials acknowledge 13 dead, not 15.

When I saw a book review and noticed the author's last name, I knew instantly who she was, and immediately put the book on hold at our library. This is a rare opportunity to look behind the scenes at the bizarre phenomenon of mass shootings, from a perspective of kindness and mercy.

In the first half of the book, Sue Klebold details the day of the shooting, and the days and weeks that followed, from her own perspective. In the second half, she writes about her journey to try to understand her son's actions, and her long-term survival, as she finds community -- in this case, survivors of suicide loss -- and becomes a suicide-prevention activist. Her writing is vivid and intensely emotional. Some parts of this book are so raw and laden with such pain that they are barely readable. Reading this book sometimes feels like peering too deeply into someone's most private heart.

Throughout, Klebold is meticulously careful to explain that seeking to understand what her son did does not mean she is excusing it. Again and again, she writes that Dylan was responsible for his own actions and that probing his mental illness does not negate that. She writes this so often, as though she wants anyone who opens the book to any random page to read this. I found it very sad that she felt she needed to do that -- but her story makes it obvious why she did.

It did not surprise me to learn that almost everything written or said in the media about the Klebold family was completely wrong. This book is clearly, in part, an attempt to set the record straight, or at least get another perspective in the public view. And again, when one reads what was said versus what actually existed, the writer's desire to do this is very understandable.

The book is suffused in regret. Sue Klebold remembers every instance, every tiny moment, where she chided or nagged when she could have hugged, when she said, "Get yourself together!" instead of "How can I help you?" Yet these instances, as she recounts them, are so ordinary, so commonplace. She was a loving mother and if at times she was irritated with or tough on her teenage son, it was all within the bounds of normalcy.

One might say that Dylan Klebold exhibited no signs of depression or other mental illness before the shooting. Sue Klebold emphatically rejects this idea, and insists there were signs, but she and Dylan's father didn't know how to read them.

I cannot agree. I didn't think any of the instances she recounts were a red flag for such violence, nor did there seem to be a pattern. All the behaviour seemed like that of a normal, if somewhat troubled, teenager -- and "troubled teenager" can be a redundancy. After reading this book, I believe the only way Sue and Tom Klebold could have known that their son was at risk for violence is if they had constantly searched his room -- something they had no cause to do and an act that might have driven him further out of reach.

When Sue Klebold read her son's journals (found by police) and saw the videos the two boys made, she felt as though she was looking at a total stranger. Dylan Klebold led two lives. As some supportive letter-writers told Sue Klebold, if someone really wants to hide something, they will. (Eric Harris is a different story. There were many clear signs.)

I knew that many Columbine families blamed the parents for the boys' actions, which strikes me as strange, cruel, and grossly unfair. Because of that, I was very heartened to know that the Klebolds received thousands of letters of sympathy and support -- from people whose children had committed atrocities, from survivors of suicide loss, from victims of bullying who thought it lucky incidents like this don't happen more often. Many people understood the family's pain and wanted them to know they were not alone. I took great relief from this.

The latter portion of the book is largely about suicide prevention, and recognizing the signs of clinical depression in children and teens, which are different than in adults. Klebold calls for nothing less than an entirely new approach to mental health.

This is a very sad book, but in the end, it's a book about survival. Sue Klebold lived through a tragedy of immense proportions. She chose to survive and, eventually, found a way to create meaning from her loss. Her book is sure to help many other people do that, too. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived

Jacob Fugger of Augsburg (1459 – 1525) must be considered one of the wealthiest people, if not the wealthiest, to ever live. You can likely mention a few other individuals that surely, you would argue, were (or are) richer. But I don’t think so. Why? Because he arrived at a time when the rules of business were not clearly understood. Entrepreneurial savvy was not common. He was like a wolf among sheep. There were few restrictions to rampant wealth accumulation and he had business acumen to spare. His money touched everything—politics, religion, art, the military, natural resources, kings and queens, banks, transportation, legal systems, entire national states—everything!

You haven’t heard of Jacob Fugger “The Rich”? Neither had I until I read a book about the Medici (a wealthy and influential renaissance family—see my review of The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance). The Medici were wealthy, most definitely, but Fugger was richer. Like the Medici, Jacob Fugger entered the banking trade (he had started life in the family’s textile trade). He proved in the long run to have had better business sense than Giovanni, Cosimo or Lorenzo de' Medici. Jacob had an uncanny ability to smell a good deal.  He bought mines, funded merchant ships, acquired jewels and much more—and it all turned a profit. He collected castles. Collected them! Five hundred years on and his descendants are still reaping the benefits of his property owning activities.His money begat more money, which begat more money. And on and on. Martin Luther hated his guts.

In The Richest Man Who Ever Lived author Greg Steinmetz describes how Jacob Fugger amassed his wealth at a time when individuals were only slowly realizing that wealth could be pursued as an end in itself and that having a lot of it could win you the king’s ear. Jacob was low key. He made his money quietly all the while staying in the shadows and influencing politics. He pulled the (coin) strings to ensure legislation matched (that is, didn’t impede) business enterprise. He made emperors. Charles V would not have made it to the imperial heights he did without Fugger money.

Jacob’s life was full of incident and he seemed to get caught up in the middle of world altering events. One example will suffice to show you what I mean. There was a revolt in the German states; historians call it the German Peasants War. “The peasants” had the wonderful idea that wealth should be shared equally by all. We call that communism today. The conceptual apparatus of communism didn’t exist in Fugger’s time but the animating idea was the same. Fugger, capitalist that he was, thought that the imposition of forced sharing would inhibit business creativity; it would quash the incentive to find new products and new efficiencies in manufacturing goods, it would hurt investment. Simply put, it would be bad for business. So Fugger money funded the army that went on to crush the revolt.

Jacob Fugger wasn’t the nicest guy. He didn’t have many friends. When he lay in bed dying his wife was off with her lover. He breathed his last surrounded by paid assistants. Money, ultimately, didn’t make him happy (at least it seems that way to this reader). The sense I have of the man after having read this book is that wealth accumulation was a kind of addictive game for Jacob. He was good at it. He was aggressive and sharp eyed and ambitious. He liked what money could do. Nowadays there are plenty of people who chase after wealth for its own sake. Jacob Fugger was the first and perhaps the supreme model of this personality type.