GFB Update 2:8, August 2012

A monthly newsletter on the vast and underappreciated world of current affairs books


Prepared by Michael Marien

In This Issue
Book of the Month: Singularity University's "Abundance"
Article Headline
Government: Recommended Books
Health: Recommended Books
Jobs: Recommended Books
Education: Recommended Books
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Book of the Month:

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. NY: Free Press, Feb 2012, 386p, $26.99 (Full Review)

Abundance_coverDiamandis is co-founder with Ray Kurzweil of the newly-formed Singularity University in California's Silicon Valley, which offers special programs to encourage new technology that will positively affect the lives of billions worldwide. With typical high-tech brio, perhaps only to be found in America, the authors claim that "abundance for all" is within our grasp and that new technologies (AI, robotics, bioinformatics, networks and sensors, nanomaterials, etc.) have the potential to provide goods and services for all who need or want them within 25 years, with noticeable change in the next decade.


Chapters describe new cooperative capabilities due to low-cost ICTs, greatly improving water and sanitation, new ways to grow food, new energy technologies, the Internet of things (trillions of connected devices), digital manufacturing with 3-D printers, tech-based changes in education and health care, the Do-It-Yourself revolution, and the new breed of techno-philanthropists. An Appendix briefly discusses three near-term dangers of the exponentials: bioterrorism, cybercrime, and unemployment due to robotics and AI. But "putting the brakes on technology just won't work."


This provocative book is a counterweight to the last four GFB Book of the Month Selections (April-July), which have little or nothing to say about new and emerging "hard" technologies--but much to say about seriously promoting sustainability and well-being through changes in government and economics ("soft" areas that Abundance generally ignores). Many new technologies, such as those described in this book, may certainly improve the human condition, although some will be slow to attain wide distribution or have unanticipated downsides.


But hard technology alone is very unlikely to produce abundance--or even adequacy--for 9 billion people in 2050 without numerous reforms in government, health, work, and education. This is amply demonstrated by recent Recommended Books in these sectors, as briefly noted below. And these books are just a sampling of the hundred or so recent books in each sector that deserve consideration (see GFB Browse by Category). New policies, perspectives, and paradigms do not have the flash and dazzle of high-tech, but they are at least as important, and probably more so. Indeed, the easy promise of high-tech "solutions" can often be a distraction from the difficult and controversial evidence-based rethinking and action that will be necessary for 21st century survival--let alone prosperity fot all.

Feature of the Month:


Recent Recommended Books on Government, Health, Jobs, and Education


Recommended Books

 Government at a Glance 2011  (OECD, June 2011, 264p) sets the stage for reforming national governments for the 21C, with an emphasis on more effective governance, sound institutions, and efficient rules and procedures in OECD member and partner countries. Chapters discuss the need for evidence-based decision-making, strategic foresight and leadership, transparency in governance, "green" procurement, efficient tax administration, public workforce restructuring, and general expenditures and investment. A few of these themes are taken up in Governing for the Long Term: Democracy and the Politics of Involvement by Alan M. Jacobs (Cambridge UP, March 2011, 324p), on bringing trade-offs over time to the center of policymaking and investing in long-term social benefits at short-term social cost. The OECD tackles the contentious realm of Regulatory Policy and Governance: Supporting Economic Growth and Serving the Public Interest (OECD, Oct 2011, 120p), which assesses recent efforts of the 34 OECD governments to develop and deepen regulatory policy for fairer and more sustainable growth. Asset Declaration for Public Officials: A Tool to Prevent Corruption (OECD, March 2011, 135p) discusses the cost-effectiveness of declaration systems.


Governance problems in the United States, once a shining example to the world, warrant special attention, especially in this extremely heated 2012 presidential election season that treats most major issues superficially--if at all. Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig (Twelve/Hachette, Oct 2011, 320p) explains how special interests funnel huge amounts of money into the US government, allowing US democracy to be co-opted by outside interests. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Bradley (Princeton UP, May 2012, 608p) demonstrates how US democracy is marred by deeply ingrained class-based political inequality, and how political voice on the Internet replicates these inequalities. Similarly, in The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity (Random House, Oct 2011, 336p), macroeconomist Jeffrey Sachs of the Columbia U Earth Institute warns that the US political system has lost its ethical moorings, with ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpowering the voice of citizens.


It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, by veteran Congress-watchers Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of AEI (Basic Books, May 2012), argues that the US political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems. Framed: America's 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance by Sanford Levinson of the U of Texas (Oxford UP, April 2012, 416p) asserts that the US Constitution is a badly flawed document that deserves revision, similar to the 50 state constitutions that have been frequently revised. The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It by Yale law professor Heather K. Gerken (Princeton UP, June 2012 pb. edition, 192p) calls for an Index that would rate state and local election systems for best registration, most accurate voting machines, shortest lines at the polls, etc. Taxes in America: What Everyone Needs to Know by Leonard E. Burman of Syracuse U and Joel Slemrod of U of Michigan (Oxford UP, Aug 2012, 224p) illuminates contentious issues involving how to improve the tax system, better enforcement, how tax burdens vary worldwide, and the kind of system most conducive to economic growth.

Recommended Books

Health Well-Being: Individual, Social, and Community Perspectives edited by John Haworth and Graham Hart (Palgrave Macmillan, Jan 2012, 296p) presents a new dynamic view of well-being for the 21C that focuses on positive psychology, social capital, a life-course approach, inequality issues, etc. as a complement to the harm-based focus of much research.   Similarly, From Public Health to Wellbeing: The New Driver for Policy and Action edited by Paul Walker and Marie John (Palgrave Macmillan, Jan 2012, 224p) explores current thinking and policy for children and young people, older people, the workplace, drug policy, etc. Taking a very broad view in time and space, Patterns of Potential Human Progress, Vol 3: Improving Global Health-Forecasting the Next 50 Years by Barry B. Hughes of the U of Denver Pardee Center (Paradigm Publishers, Jan 2011, 352p) explores expected health outcomes, risk factors, and opportunities for intervention and improved health futures.


The World Health Report: Health Systems Financing-The Path to Universal Coverage (World Health Organization, Dec 2010) explains the importance of protecting and promoting health, and maps out what countries at all stages of development can do to move towards affordable coverage for all. Health Reform: Meeting the Challenge of Ageing and Multiple Morbidities (OECD Nov 2011, 221p) examines how the overwhelming burden of disease is now chronic, and how payment systems, innovation policies, and human resource policies need to be modernized so as to improve health outcomes at sustainable cost. Healt  Care Systems: Efficiency and Policy Settings (OECD, Nov 2010, 207p) looks at health care in OECD countries and how to improve the health status of populations in a cost-effective manner. Introduction to U.S. Health Policy: The Organization, Financing, and Delivery of Health Care in America  by Donald A. Barr of Stanford U (Johns Hopkins UP, 3rd edition, Dec 2011, 384p) discusses key sectors of America's peculiar and hugely expensive health care system. Improving Health Sector Efficiency: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (OECD, June 2010, 156p) uses lessons from case studies to point to successes, as well as costly delays and failures.


New technology can indeed lead to better health care, as emphasized in The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care by Eric Topol MD (Basic Books, Feb 2012), who hopes to bring the era of big data to the lab and the hospital, to give a complete and constantly updated picture of every patient, complementing at-home brain monitors. This parallels the more restrained report from the National Research Council, Health Care Comes Home: The Human Factors (National Academies Press, Sept 2011, 200p), which notes that health care devices, technologies, and practices are rapidly moving into the home due to the rising costs of health care, more older adults, and the increasing prevalence of chronic conditions. More specifically, Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research (Institute of Medicine/National Academies Press, Jan 2012, 382p) notes that chronic pain affects >115 million US adults and costs up to $635 billion/year in medical treatment and lost productivity; pain varies widely, and care should be tailored to each patient, with emphasis on self-management and an integrated approach.


Several trends outside of the health system have a major bearing on health. Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat (OECD, Sept 2010, 268p) notes that >50% of the population in OECD countries is overweight, up from "well below 10%" before 1980, and that obesity is "a major public health concern" and a key factor for numerous chronic diseases; a comprehensive strategy is needed for prevention and control. Economic Aspects of Obesity edited by Michael Grossman of CUNY and Naci Mocan of LSU (National Bureau of Economic Research/U of Chicago Press) describes how incentives can influence individual behaviors, and evaluates costs and benefits of various proposals. In The Vegetarian Imperative (Johns Hopkins UP, Oct 2011, 240p), Anand M. Saxena points out that our appetite for animal-based foods contributes directly to high rates of chronic diseases, and that the livestock industry is degrading land, air, and water. War on Drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (June 2011, 24p) warns that vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures have clearly failed to curtail supply or consumption, and that drugs should be treated as a matter of public health, with a variety of services available to those in need and investment in prevention activities. Phantom Billing , Fake Prescriptions, and the High Cost of Medicine: Health Care Fraud and What to Do About It by Terry L. Leap (Cornell UP/ILR Press, April 2011, 256p) looks at a wide variety of health-related crimes, and measures to bring fraud and abuse under control. Finally,  

The Quest for Mental Health: A Tale of Science, Medicine, Scandal, Sorrow, and Mass Society by Ian Dowbiggin (Cambridge UP, Aug 2011, 264p) examines the growing rates of depression and anxiety despite the enormous industry of therapism (psychiatrists, counselors, life coaches, etc.) that further our dependence on psychological sciences.

Recommended Books

WorkIn a remarkable report that bridges two seemingly distinct sectors, Sick on the Job? Myths and Realities about Mental Health and Work (OECD, Jan 2012, 206p) points to the "enormous" costs of mental ill-health for individuals, employers, and society (accounting for 3-4% of GDP in the EU, according to one ILO estimate); up to one-half of new disability benefit claims are for reasons of mental ill-health, and the proportion is >70% for young adults, who often leave the labor market or never really enter it. Taking a broader view of work-related issues, OECD Employment Outlook 2011 (OECD, Sept 2011, 278p) looks at earnings volatility, income support for the unemployed, the qualifications mismatch, and lifelong learning institutions enabling workers to acquire needed skills. Skills for Green Jobs: A Global View  (International Labor Office, Feb 2012, 442p) examines the experiences of 21 developed and developing countries in adjusting training provisions to meet new demands of a greener economy, showing that skills shortages are an obstacle to realizing this potential.


In the US, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s by Arne L. Kallenberg (Russell Sage Foundation, 2011, 312p) documents the rise of precarious employment with low wages, few benefits, and no long-term security, and suggests long-term strategies to reverse this pernicious trend. Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone by Paul Osterman of MIT and Beth Shulman of DEMOS (Russell Sage Foundation, Sept 2011, 200p) notes that there are not enough jobs to go around, and that far too many jobs fall below the standard that most Americans would consider decent work; calls for policies to help employers improve job quality and thus create  better futures for all. Shared Capitalism at Work: Employee Ownership, Profit and Gain-Sharing, and Broad-Based Stock Options edited by Douglas L. Kruse et al. (National Bureau of Economic Research/U of Chicago Press, July 2011, 432p) analyzes the effect of workers as partial owners on firm performance and on worker well-being.

Recommended Books

Education Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the 21st Century by paradigm-breaker Howard Gardner of Harvard U (Basic Books, April 2011, 256p) reconsiders what education should be about, as in his earlier books such as Five Minds for the Future (2007), on the kinds of thinking needed to thrive in the world ahead, and Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons (2006). More specifically, attention should be given to Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World (Brookings Institution Press, Feb 2011, 145p), which advocates university campuses as ideal venues for needed conversations about global civics. Similarly, Global Sustainability and the Responsibilities of Universities edited by Luc E. Weber and James J. Duderstadt (Economica/Brookings, Feb 2012, 300p) discusses how research universities are adapting to the imperatives of global sustainability, and how they can develop new curricula, research paradigms, and international alliances. Unfortunately, America's universities are facing many other issues, as surveyed in American Higher Education in the 21st Century edited by Philip G. Altbach et al. (Johns Hopkins UP, 3rd edition, June 2011, 416p; GFB Book of the Month, July 2011).


Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Practice and Research by the National Research Council (National Academies Press, March 2012, 640p) warns that a high level of both print and digital literacy is needed for most aspects of 21C life, but "more than 90 million US adults lack adequate literacy... (and) only 38% of US 12th graders are at or above proficient levels in reading." Of related concern, Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances edited by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane (Russell Sage Foundation, Sept 2011, 528p) examines the corrosive effects of unequal family resources, poor neighborhoods, insecure labor markets, and worsening conditions in K-12 education. Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It by Russell W. Rumberger (Harvard UP, Oct 2011, 358p) points out that >1 million adolescents drop out every year, and the numbers are rising; dropouts are more likely to live in poverty, commit crimes, and suffer health problems.


Finally, Digital Schools: How Technology Can Transform Education by Darrell M. West (Brookings Institution Press, May 2012, 160p) describes new models of education made possible by ed tech that will enable public education to be more effective and relevant in the Digital Age. Perhaps the time has finally come for big advances in use of ed tech, but the promise has been lingering for more than 40 years! For example, see The Computer in American Education edited by Don D. Bushnell and Dwight W. Allen (Wiley, 1967; 300p), Planning for Effective Utilization of Technology in Education edited by Edgar L. Morphet and David L. Jesser (Designing Education for the Future-An Eight-State Project, 1968, 372p), and Computers in the Classroom: An Interdisciplinary View of Trends and Alternatives edited by Joseph B. Margolin and Marion R. Misch (Spartan Books, 1970, 382p). Run, Computer, Run: The Mythology of Educational Innovation by Anthony Oettinger of Harvard U (Harvard UP, 1969, 302p), with its sobering forecast of little substantial technological change in the 1970s, may still offer some applicable lessons to counter the techno-enthusiasts of our time.

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