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Monday, July 18, 2022

Review: Upheaval

 Upheaval is Jared Diamond's history book about how nations respond to crisis and constraints. It's an unusual book for an academic, since it's written entirely from a personal perspective, rather than an academic treatise. It covers seven countries: Finland, Japan, Chile, USA, Germany, Australia, and Indonesia, which are all related only by Diamond's personal connections, history, and other relationships. What's even stranger is that the framework Diamond uses is that of an individual facing a personal crisis, be it externally imposed (the Cocoanut Grove fire) or personal identity/mid-life crisis, such as Diamond's own crisis in graduate school, where he almost abandoned his PhD to attempt to become a translator for the UN.

Having said that, I really enjoyed the book precisely because of this personal perspective. For instance, in his section on Finland, he not only describes Finland's winter war with Russia, he also describes his own faux-pas, expressing his incredulity that Finland felt the need to appease Russia to the point of self-censorship in the press, when he felt certain that the US wouldn't allow Russia to invade. The fact was that during the Winter War, Finland got zero help from allies and were left to fend for themselves with massive proportional casualties for its population. Without understanding of this, it's nearly impossible to understand Finnish culture.

The entire book consists of insights like this, covering the Meiji revolution, Pinochet's dictatorship of Chile (and how surprising it was to both the CIA and the Chileans themselves). Similarly,  his description of  Australian history covered its slow realization that it had interests separate from Britain, and his coverage of Germany described how Germany (unlike Japan) faced up to its role in 2 world wars and actively apologized with sincerity about its actions.

The direct relevance of this book is pretty obvious from Diamond's telling. The US is in denial about it's flaw and relative decline, choosing to blame other countries or external factors for its problems:

the major democracy with the greatest inequality is the U.S. That’s been true for a long time, and that inequality of ours is still increasing. Some of those measures of rising American economic inequality have now become frequently quoted and widely familiar. For instance, the share of unadjusted national income earned by the richest 1% of Americans rose from less than 10% in the 1970’s to over 25% today. Inequality is rising even within the ranks of rich Americans themselves: the richest 1% of Americans have increased their incomes proportionately much more than the richest 5%; the richest 0.1% have done proportionately better than the richest 1%; and the three richest Americans (currently Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett) have combined net worths currently equal to the combined net worths of the 130 million poorest Americans. The percentage of billionaires in our population is double that of the major democracies with the next highest percentage of billionaires (Canada and Germany), and seven times that of most other major democracies. The average income of an American CEO, which was already 40 times the income of the average worker in the same company in 1980, is now several hundred times that of the company’s average worker. Conversely, while the economic status of rich Americans exceeds that in other major democracies, the economic status of poor Americans is lower than that in other major democracies... Within the foreseeable future, the U.S. will experience urban riots in which plastic strips of police tape won’t suffice to deter rioters from venting their frustration on affluent Americans. At that point, many affluent Americans will receive their own personal answer to the question, “Does it cause any harm to rich Americans that they live surrounded by poor Americans?” One answer is: yes, it causes personal insecurity... Despite our growing population, state funding of higher education has grown at only 1/25th of the rate of state funding for prisons, to the point where a dozen U.S. states now spend more on their prison systems than they do on their systems of higher education...All schoolteachers in South Korea, Singapore, and Finland come from the top third of their school classes, but nearly half of American teachers come from the bottom third of their classes. In all my 53 years of teaching at the University of California (Los Angeles), a university that attracts good students, I have had only one student who told me that he wanted to become a schoolteacher. (kindle loc 4962-5088)

 As the history of the various other countries describes, the denial of problems and blaming of external factors does not have a good outcome. He also observes something that I observed as well in American society, not only with regards to itself, but many American corporations also have it: 

belief in American exceptionalism translates into the widespread belief that the U.S. has nothing to learn from Canada and Western European democracies: not even from their solutions to issues that arise for every country, such as health care, education, immigration, prisons, and security in old age—issues about which most Americans are dissatisfied with our American solutions but still refuse to learn from Canadian or Western European solutions. (kindle loc 5885)

I remember as an engineer asking a Google VP during a Q&A as to whether Google felt that it had anything to learn from other companies that had grown quickly. The answer that came back was an assertion that Google had such scale that no other companies had anything to teach it. I would read later on a description by a Microsoft PM that Microsoft had such scale that a reduction in the size of the postcards it sent materially affected revenue significantly because of postage. It's pretty clear that the lack of humility seems to be prevalent throughout American society amongst its powerful and high status folks.

For this insight and many others, I consider this book well worth your time. I learned much about Indonesia, Australia, Finland and Chile that I wouldn't have, and I never would have had the time to separate research so many different countries. Recommended.


1 comment:

N said...

I just got this book from the library. I like how your book review also combines fact with personal anecdote (e.g. the Google Q&A).