Monday, February 05, 2007

Book Review -- "American Theocracy"

Since I have a good-sized daily commute to and from work, I decided to try a book on CD. "American Theocracy" by Kevin Phillips was the perfect candidate because it was educational, challenging, and way too freakin' long for me to read in the normal book-like fashion. 17CDs later... I finally got through it.

The full title is "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century." The title pretty much tells the premise of the book. Phillips looked back on world-leading empires throughout history (Rome, Spain, Britain, etc...) and examined the dynamics of these cultures that preceded their downfall. Three common themes came up in his analysis:

  1. Too much dependence on a resource that was either scarce, out of the empire's control, or both.
  2. Radical religion that eventually worked its way into domestic law and international relations, polarizing the empire's citizens and the rest of the world.
  3. Shifting from a manufacturing/production economy to a finance economy, basically trying to manipulate markets to profit from other countries' efficiencies.

He proceeds to illustrate how each of these three factors are already evident in the United States, which is undoubtedly the world's "leading power" today, at least in terms of economy and military. I'll give a brief review of these three sections and then a final wrapup.

Section 1 -- All Oiled Up and Nowhere to Go

The US consumes nearly 25% of the world's oil production today, yet we hold only 5% of the oil supply. This is an inevitable source of tension, and at least partly explains why we have been involved in turmoil in the Middle East for more than a century. There's just too much at stake here at home if we didn't have vast, cheap access to the oil fields of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, etc...

Two points were most interesting to me in this section:

  1. "Peak oil" is less and less debated these days, and is generally accepted as imminent. With the huge growth of China and other countries, demand for oil as an energy source will only continue to skyrocket. And pretty soon production will plateau. Alternative energy sources just aren't ready yet.
  2. Iraq was noted as a country with huge oil fields, but also with very low-level technology. In other words, most of the oil in Iraq probably hasn't even been discovered yet. And the field that are known are not being tapped by the best drills and pumps. There are billions of barrels of oil sitting in that country... think it may continue to be a hotbed of conflict?

The historical connections here were mostly to Britain and their heavy use of coal in the 19th century. After making their entire economy dependent on coal, while America's fledgling system was in flux and better able to adapt to oil, the Britains were eventually forced to hold onto old technology while America flourished. Now it is America who sits with power grids, transit systems and suburban city planning that relies on oil far more than any other country. Will we be able to adapt as the resource supply dwindles, or as more efficient energy sources become available?

I liked this section, and thought the analyses and connections were accurate, but it didn't really scare me. I am an optimist when it comes to the human race, and while change is never easy, I think we will solve these energy issues as they arise.

Section 2 -- A Revival Up In Here

Welcome to my least favorite section. Not because I'm a Christian and felt attacked or defensive, because I didn't. This was by far the longest part of the book, and the least reliant on analysis and objective research. He clearly has some big, big bones to pick with religion and the Republican Party. Hey, I've got issues with both groups too, but there's a time to show some restraint. One of those times is when you're writing a big, visible book that's supposed to be impartial in its approach.

His historical tracings of Protestant and Catholic groupings were excellent. I daresay that most regular church attendees today don't even really know where their church came from and how it was formed. It was fascinating to follow the changing tides through the decades of Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist and Episcopalian histories. I've read histories from Christian authors that weren't nearly as clear and accurate as Kevin Phillips, an atheist, achieved here.

Unfortunately, he soon descends into tirades against rednecks, right-wing extremists and Republicans, and eventually says that all three groups are one and the same, and that they're taking over the country. He says that a religious culture based on "Left Behind" theology will inevitably make bad decisions, banking on the rapture to save them all from earthly consequences.

I think his historical connection for this section was mostly Rome and Spain, but both were poorly done. I totally understand how an evangelical approach to international relations is generally a bad idea (Crusades, anyone?), yet the parallels with Rome and Spain just didn't seem very strong. Overall there was some good stuff in this section, but it was an arduous and painful process to siphon it from the glut of bitter attack on religion in general.

Section 3 -- Show Me The Money

Another interesting section, although not very convincing as a whole. I agree that the soaring national debt, combined with low levels of personal savings and a potentially shaky currency, all make for a scary economic mix. But I don't buy his argument that our shift to a Finance economy, no longer strong in manufacturing, signals our doom.

Alan Greenspan was with me on this one (he always followed my advice). One thing you gotta like about the service and finance sectors -- they consume a lot less oil than the manufacturing sector. And the profits are usually better, and competitive advantage can often be sustained for longer.

The reminders about government spending and personal savings were timely and important. We've gotta balance the budget, both in Washington and at home. But I don't really think that Korea is going to overtake us because they can make plastic monkey toys cheaper and better than we can.

I think his historical connection here was with the Dutch in the 1700s or something, but it all sounded like jibba jabba by this point. You try listening to 15 hours of this stuff and see how you feel.


In the end, this really was the perfect introduction to books on CD. And I got a lot more out of my commutes for a month than I normally would have. Somehow, listening to Phil Collins' "Sussudio" and commercials for laser hair removal just don't seem to make me any smarter.

But I never could have actually read that book. Way too long and dry.

1 comment:

hardrox said...

Thanks for the review, Michael. One of these days I'll get a CD player for the car and will be looking into audio books for the ride.