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Monday, July 7, 2014

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die; The Revenge of Geography; and Aristotle’s Children. How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages

Niall Ferguson.  The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die.  ©2013  When I read Ferguson, I’m reminded of my history teacher at Regis High School, Lou Kellog, the football coach.  He read from his notes.  Everything came in threes.  We wrote them down, and, if we remembered them when he gave his exams, we got A’s.  This short book is sort of a rant and a pessimistic one at that.  His main point is that for political and economic development, institutions are more important than climate or disease.  For examples he mentions Nogales and then North and South Korea and East and West Germany.  He opines that about $9.3 trillion of capital in developing countries is unproductive and creates no wealth.  It consists of land and real estate for which there is no clear title.  Because institutional structures are weak or nonexistent, this capital can’t be used for collateral to get loans to make productive investments.  He goes on to apply this idea in Islamic countries where development is going nowhere.  An example is the fruit stand vendor in Tunis who immolated himself after authorities arbitrarily seized his stand, his only source of livelihood, because he didn’t own the 3 square meters on which it stood.  Then he turns to the West where he suggests institutional malaise is undermining 500 years of progress.  Here come the four things that are taking us on the road to hell:  1. Intergenerational debt, 2.  Irregulation and over regulation, 3. The rule of lawyers, and 4. Our uncivil society.  I liked his earlier book, Civilization, better.  June 2014
Robert D. Kaplan.  The Revenge of Geography.  ©2012   Kaplan uses the geopolitical theories of Alexander MacKinder and others plus Alfred Mahan’s theories about sea power to weave a geopolitical tapestry of the world through history and into the present and the future.  One example he gives of how geopolitical theory has moved nations is the belief that Karl Haushofer greatly influenced Hitler in prison in 1923 when he was writing Mein Kampf and developing his expansionist theories.  Kaplan suggests that the difference between modern Iraq and a somewhat gentler modern Egypt is a matter of borders that has existed from ancient times.  Egypt has always been under less pressure from its neighbors than the various entities that have governed Iraq over the last 4000 years.  In general natural barriers plus favorable environment are essential to development of stable institutions.  He gives practically endless examples over time and all over the world.  Towards the end of all this, writing in 2012, he called it perfectly for contemporary Iraq and Syria: Maliki’s government looked unlikely to survive and Syria looked to him like the next likely target for Al Qaeda.  As he gets close to winding up, he pays homage to Fernand Braudel of the Annales School of French historians, because he brought together all of the social sciences, including, of course, geopolitics, in his writing of history.  He concludes by suggesting that the most important geopolitical consideration for the US is Mexico.  The last chapter alone would make reading this worthwhile.  July 2014
Richard Rubenstein.  Aristotle’s Children. How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages.   ©2004   It is the world’s good fortune that West European Christians in Spain in the 12th C were introduced to Aristotle and the commentaries on his work by, among others, the Muslim sages Averroes and Avicenna and the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides.  It was just at this time that Greek philosophy was being rejected in Islamic thinking and might have been lost forever if it had not been taken up by Europeans.  Rubenstein traces the influences of Aristotle through the Middle Ages, particularly at the University of Paris, and on into the enlightenment and modern times.  This was a fascinating trip for me, because I had tried to deal with some of this while taking endless required philosophy courses at Holy Cross College.  Rubenstein describes all the travails of scholars trying to reconcile faith and reason or faith and science.  Western society seems to have accomplished this fairly well, and my main conclusion is that this is what has to happen in the Islamic world before Muslims can find peace and security.  July 2014

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